Monday, July 29, 2013

Why I Take Hope in Pope Francis' Statement on Gay Priests

In undermining – if not abolishing – the judgmental
"spiritual paternity" argument against gay priests, Pope Francis
plants seeds of hope, renewal and transformation

Do you remember how, about four or five years ago, there was a lot of talk about something called "spiritual paternity"? It was actually an idea, a theological concept, used to support the judgment that gay men and women are ontologically deficit in such a way that they are incapable of serving as priests.

Speaking in October 2008, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski of the Congregation for Catholic Education stated that "Homosexuals [and women] cannot be admitted to the priesthood because of the nature of priesthood in which a spiritual paternity is carried out. . . . When we ask why Christ reserved the priesthood to men, we speak of this spiritual paternity."

The cardinal's statements were in relation to a Vatican document on homosexuality and the priesthood, one that made it clear that homosexuals were barred from being priests by the "paternal" nature of priesthood and their inherent lack of "affective maturity."

Judgmental and insensitive

I recall how many people were deeply offended by the judgmental and insensitive tone of both the Vatican document and Cardinal Grocholewski's remarks on gay priests.

At a Vatican press conference at around the time of the release of the document, Grocholewski was asked if homosexuals committed to lifelong celibacy could be ordained. He said "no," adding that:

The candidate does not necessarily have to practice homosexuality (to be excluded.) He can even be without sin. But if he has this deeply seated tendency, he cannot be admitted to priestly ministry precisely because of the nature of the priesthood, in which a spiritual paternity is carried out. Here we are not talking about whether he commits sins, but whether this deeply rooted tendency remains.

I don't know about you, but I look back on those statements and the notion of "spiritual paternity" and see a lot of judging going on in relation to gay men and the priesthood. Now, at the time, I don't think anyone was that surprised by this anti-gay rhetoric or even its increasing intensity. After all, Joseph Ratzinger was pope and he had for decades been obsessed with issues relating to homosexuality. My own belief is that Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI was attempting to work through his own issues regarding same-sex attraction. The problem, of course, was that the rest of us ended up being saddled with his impoverished theological conclusions. Chief among these is the notion that homosexuality is an "inclination" which "intrinsically disorders" a person towards "grave moral evil," i.e., sexual activity with someone of the same gender. Now, this may match his reality, but for the majority of gay people striving – and more often than not succeeding – in living lives of integrity and wholeness, such concepts and terms are both erroneous and offensive. The idea of "spiritual paternity" is, I believe, another example of an erroneous and offensive concept cobbled together to support the hierarchy's profoundly dysfunctional notions of gender and sexuality.

Pope Francis, unfortunately, isn't directly challenging these foundational notions of the hierarchy nor the 'official' teaching' that results from them. However, his words today to journalists traveling back with him to Rome from Rio de Janeiro are a step in the right direction and may well pave the way for future developments.

While nothing Francis said suggested acceptance of what the hierarchy labels "homosexual acts," homosexual people, said the pope, should be treated with dignity and not blackmailed or pressured because of their sexual orientation.

"Who am I to judge?"

And then, according to media reports, the pope said the following in relation to homosexuality and the priesthood:

If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?

Many commentators are saying that this statement shifts the hierarchy's message not just on gays and the priesthood but on gay issues in general. For one thing, it's apparently the first documented use by a pope of the word "gay" – the term that gay people themselves most often use yet which some within the church view as implying "ideological commitments" at odds with being Catholic. Also, the pope's conversational tone is a welcome change from the more dogmatic approach we're used to from members of the church hierarchy. And what's hopeful about this and may signify a shift is that the pope conveys a willingness to listen and an openness to dialogue. And as many of us know, such qualities allow the Spirit to break through in often unexpected ways so as to guide us in new ways of understanding.

Yet there's another way the pope's statement on gay priests shifts the message on gay issues in general. This is because his statement undermines, if not completely abolishes, the whole "spiritual paternity" argument against gay men becoming priests. We can no longer say, or rather judge, that a same-sex attracted man lacks something in his nature or his level of maturity simply because he is same-sex attracted. I would argue that this same line of thinking has positive implications for gay men in contexts other than the priesthood. It also has positive implications for women, including within the context of priesthood, as we can no longer say, or rather judge, that a female lacks something in her nature or her level of maturity simply because she is female.

The way of the Spirit

The implications of the pope's in-flight news conference remarks are quite something, aren't they? And it could be that they are implications of which the pope himself is still growing into full consciousness. That tends to often be the wonderful trickster-like way of the Spirit, wouldn't you say? And I have no doubt that it was God's Spirit that inspired the speaking through Francis of these particular words – words which, seed-like, contain much potential for hope, renewal and transformation within the church.

My prayer is that Francis continues to be open to the Spirit and thus continues to say and do things that challenge all those things – be they unjust economic systems, selfish attitudes, or judgmental theological concepts – that hinder and obstruct the flowering of that abundant life that Jesus proclaimed for all.

Related Off-site Links:
Pope Francis Signals Openness Towards Gay Priests – Lizzy Davies (The Guardian, July 29, 2013).
Pope Francis Offers Respect for Gay Priests, Signaling a New Papal Direction – Francis DeBernardo (Bondings 2.0, July 29, 2013).
Pope Francis on Gays: Who Am I To Judge Them? – Paul Brandeis Raushenbush (The Huffington Post, July 29, 2013).
Pope on Homosexuals: "Who Am I To Judge?" – John Allen Jr. (National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2013).
Pope Francis on Not Judging and Marginalizing Gays: My Reflections – William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, July 29, 2013).
Will Francis' Statements on Women and Gays "Make a Mess" Inside the Church? – Mary E. Hunt (Religion Dispatches, July 29, 2013).
Catholic Reactions to Pope Francis' Comments on Accepting Gay Priests – Francis DeBernardo (Bonding 2.0, July 29, 2013).
Pope's Comments on Gay Clergy Mark Change in Style If Not Substance – Emma Margolin (MSNBC, July 29, 2013).
"Spiritual Paternity": Why Homosexual Men Cannot be Ordained Catholic Priests – Paula Ruddy (The Progressive Catholic Voice, January 14, 2009).
Ministry, Not Maleness, is the Theological Starting Point for the Priest – James Moudry (The Progressive Catholic Voice, February 18, 2009).

UPDATES: Pope's Comments Raise Hope for Change Among Minnesota Catholics – Jeff Strickler (Star Tribune, July 30, 2013).
How Pope Francis' Gay Comment Was Oversold by the Media – Sara Morrison (Reuters via Yahoo! News, July 30, 2013).
Catholic Pundits in Damage Control After Pope Says Something Halfway Nice – Evan Hurst (Truth Wins Out, July 30, 2013).
Pope Francis and Gays: “Loving the Sinner” is Still Intolerance – Tim Padgett (Time, July 30, 2013).
Pope Francis Asks "Who Am I to Judge?" But Real-Life Gay Catholics Continue to Experience Marginalization – William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, July 30, 2013).
A Single Step Can Begin the Longest Journey – Herbert W. Chilstrom (Star Tribune, August 3, 2013).
Pope Francis and Gay Priests – Terence Weldon (Queering the Church, August 9, 2013).
Pope Francis and the Gay Elephant in the Room – Phillip Clark (Expressions: Liberated, August 18, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Homosexuality and the Priesthood
Officially Homophobic, Intensely Homoerotic
A Fact That Should Be Neither Surprising Nor Derogatory
Report: Homosexuality No Factor in Abusive Priests
Vatican Stance on Gay Priests Signals Urgent Need for Renewal and Reform
Gay Men in the Vatican Are Giving the Rest of Us a Bad Name
Catholic Church Can Overcome Fear of LGBT People


Anonymous said...

This is surely a good sign, good news. But for Catholics that hate gay people it won't make any difference. His "Who am I to judge?" line will anger many. Mark

Paula said...

I remember Cardinal Grocholewski's conclusion based on a metaphor dismissing a whole category of human beings. What a turnaround for the pope to be inclusive.

Kenny said...

Looks like we have a keeper in Francis . . . He listens!

Terry Nelson said...

It's pretty amazing, isn't it. Just with a few words he has put an entirely new perspective on things - he has lifted a heavy burden.

Good post Michael.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Following is what my friend Joseph Palacios shared on Facebook today about the pope's recent comments . . .

The Pope's statement regarding gay priests was huge because:

1) Francis is the first Pope to say the word "gay" in a public setting and by so doing acknowledged us as humans and as a group-- not 'same sex inclinations', 'homosexual behavior', etc. He put the focus on the person. There are many U.S. bishops who would not even say the word 'gay' because it indicated recognition of a human orientation such as ethnic group, gender, socio-economic status. This is a turning point because Francis has spoken the unspeakable.

2) This statement must send Maggie Gallagher and the NOM folks into a frenzy! It undermines all their efforts regarding recognition of gay people having fundamental civil and human rights. Francis is not focused on the law or organizing against people. This does not change the theology; but it could open a door for reform, particularly allowing more bishops and pastors to have LGBT ministries.

3) He indicates that being gay does not preclude ordination, which is really a rebuff to Benedict who thought the 'intrinsic moral disorder' he cooked up while he was Ratzinger the Inquisitor was an impediment to ordination.

4) As Rachel Donadio in the New York Times notes: “It’s not a great opening in terms of contents, but the fact that he talked about it that way is a great novelty,” said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at the Italian daily La Repubblica. Francis would probably agree with Benedict’s writings on homosexuality, he added, “but it doesn’t interest him.”

Brian R said...

I am sorry but I cannot see much difference just a little more sugar coated than the previous Pope. It is still love the sinner but hate the sin.
Read Fr Geoff Farrow