Will Francis’ Statements on Women and Gays ‘Make a Mess’ Inside the Church?

Popes Francis and Benedict. Image: Vatican Media

Pope Francis made his first foray abroad since becoming pope and by all accounts his stock is up. In the case of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, however, the encore will be more important than the performance itself. Will his comments on the plane ride home regarding the role of women and ‘the gay lobby’ translate into changes inside the institutional church? One can only hope, though it remains too early to tell.

I wasn’t there, but I watched enough live coverage to get a feel for the scene at Copacabana Beach. Whether I wanted it or not, I probably earned the plenary indulgence promised to his Twitter followers! These Vatican people think of everything from age to age.

Rio was a happy place for a pope’s international debut. The date was set several years ago so his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had been expected to make the trip. Luckily for the kyriarchal church it was Francis instead; a Latin American pope in Latin America was a winner before he set a foot on the sand. 

For Argentines, Brazil has many tastes of home. People are outgoing and friendly. The normal way to greet someone—a neighbor, a friend, a co-worker—is with a kiss or two. After two years in Buenos Aires, I came home habituated to the custom and greeted my father’s golf partner with a kiss. We almost needed two ambulances on the course as Irish-American gentlemen of a certain vintage were not accustomed to such displays of public affection. So the sight of Francis kissing every baby in sight and hugging everyone else, while remarkable to those from more restrained cultures, was just the pope doing what comes naturally. Still, it left a good feeling, and religions rely as much on feelings as on doctrine.

Brazil made the Catholic Church look good. Appealing rock music, big stage pageantry, a stunning beach, young people from around the world, indigenous people bringing care for the Amazon region to public attention, all signal positive things. What’s not to like? The Pope steered clear of all of the neuralgic issues—women’s ministry, LGBTIQ matters, sexual abuse and cover-up by clergy, Vatican financial scandals, contraception/abortion (except for the usual formula of “life from conception to natural death”)—in his major speeches. He never acknowledged a strong open letter from the women of Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir (CDD-Brazil) that raised most of them. No surprise there. Only on the plane home in an unusual press conference when he was asked directly did he tackle any of these matters. Therein lies an important part of the story.

On July 25, in a rousing speech to young people, he stated: “quiero lío en las diócesis,” which the English language press prissily translated as a plea for the youth to “make a mess.” I suspect that those more familiar with the Argentine way of speaking would have rendered it “go ahead and ‘screw up,’” though that is a bit unseemly for a pontiff. What Francis appears to have meant is that he wants young people to shake things up in their local situations as they manifest their faith.

Whether the institutional church will permit much of it remains to be seen. 

In a speech to Brazilian leaders gathered at the Municipal Theatre (Rio de Janeiro, 27 July 2013) Pope Francis spoke about social problems. He advised the civic leaders to “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue” as the most effective way to deal with the injustices that set off large-scale demonstrations in Brazilian cities earlier this year. He noted that this is how democracy works, though he declined to mention whether the institution he leads will have a semblance of democracy, and whether dialogue is the wave of its future. Once again, one can only hope.

On the plane ride home, the Pope was asked about a brewing Vatican scandal involving Monsignor Battista Ricca who runs the residence where Francis lives and who was recently appointed as part of the group overseeing the Institute for the Works of Religion, commonly referred to as the Vatican bank. Lots of rumors have surfaced about Ricca, specifically related to gay activity, which the pope suggested amounted to nothing on initial investigation. He left the impression that sometimes youthful indiscretions plague one unfairly later in life. I rather like his approach, as who hasn’t had such experiences? I await such understanding when it comes to well-thought-out decisions mature women make to have abortions. 

When asked about the reputed “gay lobby,” he joked that none of its members were sporting their credentials on their Vatican ID cards, seeming to dismiss the matter handily. When asked directly about gay and lesbian people (interestingly, he used the word “gay” rather than homosexual), as such, he broke ranks with both of his predecessors by saying, “If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.” 

That is certainly true in his own Jesuit order where he has undoubtedly known more than a few gay priests. And, after all, judgment of another person’s heart isn’t in even the papal job description. What calls attention is the fact that a sitting pope has something neutral unto decent to say about people who have been vilified for generations by the institution he heads. 

In 1975, in a pastoral letter On Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Paul VI, homosexual acts were officially forbidden. But then so was masturbation in very similar terms, rendering the whole conversation more than a little dubious. Nonetheless, it formed the basis of an anti-gay position that has long been emblematic of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, sexual activities of some of their best and brightest notwithstanding. 

Along came Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who held a different view. Incredibly, he felt that in the 1975 letter, “an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good.” He took pains to clarify in a deeply unpopular 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons approved by Pope John Paul II:

“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, October 1, 1986). 

In 2005, the Vatican put an even finer point on the matter, underscoring that gay men, even if celibate, were not welcome in the priesthood. In November 2005, the Vatican, through the Congregation for Catholic Education, published the Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders, with the following central message:

…this Dicastery, in accord with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, believes it necessary to state clearly that the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture’.

That seemed to rule out a very large percentage of men interested in ordination, though there is strong anecdotal evidence that it is honored in the breach if at all. Francis seems to take a different, more enlightened view. Once again, one hopes so, given how Neanderthal those written statements read today. 

In the same press conference, Francis is reported to have said:

A church without women would be like an apostolic college without Mary. The Madonna is more important than the apostles — the Church herself is feminine, the Spouse of Christ and a mother…The role of women doesn’t just end with being a mother and with housework. We don’t yet have a truly deep theology of women… We talk about whether they can be this or that, can they be altar boys, can they be lectors, about a woman as president of Caritas (Catholic charities). But we don’t have a deep theology of women in the church…On the ordination of women, the Church has spoken and said no. Pope John Paul II, in a definitive formulation, said that door is closed.

Boom. This is the same old same old theology—the Virgin Mary is more important than anyone else in the story, but living women cannot make ecclesial decisions, exercise sacramental ministry, or make ethical choices. Apparently, the question of women’s ordination is so yesterday in the Vatican Francis doesn’t think it needs to be revisited. 

So much for democracy and making a mess (not to say “screwing up”) when it comes to internal church matters. I shudder to think what a “deep theology of women in the church” will look like, much less who will write it. So while I am delighted to see some small movement on the part of this pope on gay issues, I think it’s crucial that he not be given a pass on issues related to women. They are all of a piece. 

Gender discrimination is at the heart of kyriarchy. No blithe generalizations about the wonders of women without concrete, structural changes that reflect those realities are acceptable. Women will not be trivialized, and we certainly will not stand by and watch men, including this pope, make excuses for why women cannot be full members of the church.

Furthermore, there’s no surprise in clergymen covering for one another, passing over just how gay things really are, whose youthful capers continue into late middle age, and the like. Few Jesuits would have the nerve to be anti-gay given the make-up of their congregation. I have seen and heard enough over the years from clergymen to recognize the patterns when I see them. Structural change or no change, gentlemen. Let the buyers beware. 

The proof of whether this off the cuff press conference, following a well-staged week in Brazil, signals real change will unfold in the months ahead. Will there be stirrings of democracy, a Vatican spring complete with líos in every diocese capable of upending a kyriarchal church and letting a mature, diverse community emerge? Will women finally and definitively share power with men in a democratic church? Or, will there simply be a little tweaking of the rules to make sure that a few favored sons who happen to be gay can remain in power? 

Once again, how women are treated, indeed what ministry, decision-making power, and moral authority women share, will answer the question. I will be watching live, plenary indulgence or not.