A Catholic friend of mine recently went to pray for the unborn and their mothers in front of an abortion clinic in Alabama. Abortion advocates on the other side of the street met him with a sign reading (more or less), “The Pope says you should shut up and go home!” Similarly, a student recently told another friend of mine, “I’m for gay marriage – and so is the Pope!” What on earth are we to make of such claims?
This confusion has arisen from bad reporting about some of the Pope’s recent interviews. Returning from World Youth Day aboard the Papal Plane, Pope Francis said of homosexuals, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.” In an interview with the Jesuit magazine America, he elaborated, ““We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods . . . when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
From the Pope’s own words, it is absolutely clear that he has not advocated any radical change in Catholic moral teaching. To suggest otherwise is not only to misunderstand the Pope’s remarks, but also to misconstrue the nature of Papal authority. (The Pope has the authority to teach the faith and to reject error. He does not have the authority to reject any part of the deposit of faith.) Pope Francis’s remarks cohere with the teaching of the Catechism. He noted, “By saying this, I said what the catechism says. . . We must always consider the person . . . In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”
The Pope goes on to explain himself very carefully. In his mind, there is a danger in proclaiming morality apart from the proclamation of the Gospel. He warns that “the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall” without “a simple, profound, radiant” proclamation of the Gospel. “It is from this,” he remarks, “that the moral consequences flow.” “The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”
I think we can all appreciate what the Pope is saying. In my own life as a father, I have found that my children are much more responsive if I approach them in love than if I simply condemn bad behavior and demand change. But that does not mean that I should shy away from instructing them properly in Christian morality.
One challenge in parsing the Pope’s comments comes precisely from their format. These are interviews, not detailed encyclicals. We can usefully compare them, therefore, to the more extensive moral catechesis in an encyclical like Bl. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor. This encyclical responded to exactly the kind of misunderstanding we have encountered in recent weeks. It addressed whether true faith and traditional morality could ever be separated: “As if membership in the Church and her internal unity were to be decided on the basis of faith alone, while in the sphere of morality a pluralism of opinions and of kinds of behavior could be tolerated.” (Veritatis Splendor, 23) Needless to say, Pope John Paul II insisted upon the absolutely essential and unchanging nature of the Church’s moral teaching, especially including her teaching on human sexuality. (VS, 47-49, 81) He was careful, however, to set the Church’s moral teaching in the context of grace and of relationship to a loving God. (VS, 28)
Jesus Christ said, “Judge not lest you be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) He also said, ” Go, and now sin no more.” (John 8:11) In John’s Gospel we read, “The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son.” (John 5:22) And St. Paul says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)
Christian teaching is remarkably consistent on this matter of judgment. I can never, ever know the exact state of another man’s soul. I don’t know how much he knows about right and wrong. I don’t know what barriers he might have to making free, informed choices. And I am a sinner myself. So I must never, ever reject him as a person. But I have every reason to judge behavior, including sexual behavior, because Scripture insists that I, myself, will be judged for my sexual behavior: “Do not be deceived,” says St. Paul, “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
Pope Francis has not changed Christian moral teaching. He has simply reiterated the teaching of Christ and of St. Paul who said, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” (1 Corinthians 5:12) We are not to be judgmental hypocrites. We are to present Christ in love and compassion. But neither are we to shy away from proclaiming the truth about the whole person. This would not be compassion since, as Pope John Paul II said, “It is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all.” (VS, 3)