Ermagerd, everybody! The Pope has renounced all church teaching on everything! Stop the presses! Start them again! Freak out!
That’s my impression of Twitter, online and broadcast and cable news today. From my morning read:
CBSNews: Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge” gay clergy? http://cbsn.ws/14dnXJD
Biggest news story of the day. And why, exactly, is this news? Everyone agrees it’s news, but why? It would be news if he was changing church teaching on whether homosexual acts are sin, for instance. It would be news if he were changing church teaching on whether sexually active gay men should be priests, for instance. It would be news if he were changing church teaching on whether strong homosexual tendencies are a barrier to ordination. And, to be honest, no matter what was said it would be news even if the word “homosexual” or “gay” were uttered by Pope Francis, since that’s all that the media really care about these days. What, specifically, is the news?
I was glad I read the Associated Press story first because, setting aside the headline and lede, it included the minor detail that Pope Francis did not depart from traditional church teaching on sin and homosexuality. That was a detail left absent from most every other report I read:
ABOARD THE PAPAL AIRCRAFT (AP) — Pope Francis reached out to gays on Monday, saying he wouldn’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a remarkably open and wide-ranging news conference as he returned from his first foreign trip.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis asked.
His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, signed a document in 2005 that said men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. Francis was much more conciliatory, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.
The distinction being suggested here is clear — the Vatican in 2005 said that deep-rooted homosexual tendencies are a barrier to priesthood. Now the Pope says that if you a priest who confesses to sexual sin, you should be forgiven and your sin forgotten. But is this the contradiction or change of policy the media fervently pray it is? I’m not sure. The original document signed by Benedict was about the formation of priests — in no way was it about not forgiving ordained priests who have sinned — sexually or otherwise. Likewise, Francis isn’t referring (at least as far as what’s been published to this point) to the formation of priests but, rather, about forgiving clergy who have sinned sexually.
Anyway, note the last line “gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.” What you’re seeing here is traditional Christian teaching both in terms of a clear understanding of what sin is and that sin is forgiven and forgotten. You can’t forgive, obviously, something which is not a sin. There would be no need to forgive and wipe away something that should be celebrated, right?
I’ve written before about how poorly the media understand forgiveness as a key Christian teaching. Yes, Christianity has for 2,000 years had an impossibly rigorous moral code that its adherents strive to follow. That these same adherents fail is not exactly news-breaking. It has been said that the life of the Christian is one of repentance. (To repent, by the way, means to turn away from. If one repents from a sin, that means they have turned away from the sin.) That the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about the forgiveness of these sins is — somehow, even after it has changed the hearts of billions of humans — the great under-covered story of those last few thousand years. Again, this forgiveness means something very little in a culture without sin. Thus, I guess, the confused stories coming out today.
One particularly bad story was out of USA Today, built off of an AP story:
Pope Francis reached out an olive branch to the gay community Monday, saying that he won’t “judge” gay priests.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
The pope’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, authored a document that said men with homosexual orientations should not be priests. Francis is softening that position, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven.
Better explained in the original AP story, right? In any case, this third sentence also has the error of ascribing authorship to Benedict when, in fact, it was not written by him. He did sign it, as the original AP story states. I’d go with John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter. Let us know if there are other good reports in the comments. In the NCR piece, we learn that Francis spoke on many issues other than homosexuality (who knew there were other issues?) during his free-wheeling “whopper” of a 90-minute interview.
Francis’ comments on forgiveness for divorced members of the Roman Catholic Church affect vastly more people than his comments on repentant gay priests — so I imagine we’ll start to see more coverage of that and the other issues he addressed therein.
For reporters covering the topic, a quick link to a relevant portion of the catechism.