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What is Pope Francis really saying about homosexuality in the Church?

Shelagh Fogarty-The Tablet - Thu, Dec 6th 2018

Shelagh Fogarty 

In a new book, Pope Francis seemed unequivocal in his admonition that LGBTQ+ people should not follow a perceived vocation to the priesthood or to a Religious order. But as the writer found by listening to callers to her radio show, other Catholics have more nuanced views

When I broadcast, I’m always conscious that the sheer range of people listening means that I can never know what relationship each listener has to a particular story, or how they will react to what they hear. I imagine that fact is somewhat amplified when you’re the Pope and, for good or ill, every public utterance lands on different ears in different ways. So it has been with Pope Francis’ latest observations on homosexuality and lesbianism in the Church.

I don’t recall any previous pope speaking so plainly about an issue which, for as long as I can remember, has only been talked about in the abstract. Not any more. Francis’ comments in the book-length interview he gave to a Spanish priest and publisher, for a book on religious vocation, send a crystal-clear message about gay sex and the Catholic priesthood – they cannot coexist. Hardly a surprise. And remove the word “gay” and the same also applies: straight sex and the Catholic priesthood are not compatible either. Old news.

Leaving aside the ordination as Catholic priests of former Anglican ministers with wives and families, and the talk of some Bishops’ Conferences in areas where there is a desperate shortage of priests asking Rome if married men might be permitted to train as priests in their dioceses, anyone holding out for wholesale change on this front had better pull up a chair. The rule of mandatory celibacy for priests is unlikely to wobble in this papacy. And for young gay men and women who think they might have a vocation to the religious life, at first sight, it doesn’t look good. Francis says: “In consecrated and priestly life, there’s no room for that kind of affection. Therefore, the Church recommends that people with that kind of ingrained tendency should not be accepted into the ministry or consecrated life … (it) is not his place.”

Is Francis saying that young gay people should not even think about becoming priests or nuns? That’s not quite how I read him. We “have to urge homosexual priests, and men and women Religious, to live celibacy with integrity, and, above all, that they be impeccably responsible, trying to never scandalise either their communities or the faithful holy people of God,” Francis says. “It’s better for them to leave the ministry or the consecrated life rather than to live a double life.” 

Francis is simply reasserting that gay priests and Religious should keep their promise to be celibate – just as straight priests and Religious should try to do. (And, of course, just as all Catholics should try to keep their promises to their partners, if they are married, or to remain chaste, if they are not.) And, whether gay or straight, better not to make yourself and everyone else miserable by having secretive sexual relationships on the side. If you can’t keep the vow of celibacy, in other words, much better all round if you don’t become a priest. So, as my producer would say, where’s the row?

I found out on Monday afternoon. Callers to my LBC radio show, Catholics and non-Catholics, Europeans, Asians and Africans, told me. For some, if the Church had a “no gays in the priesthood” rule, it would be simple homophobia. What if a gentle, committed, faithful Catholic had a calling to the priesthood or to a community of nuns? Is he or she to be rejected simply on the grounds of their sexual orientation? Other listeners were unimpressed by the Pope’s observation that, “in our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable”. One tweeted that there is a mountain of scientific evidence that a person’s sexuality is inherent, hardwired. Sexual orientation is not like a cocktail dress plucked off a clothes rail. Others wondered how Francis’ comments fitted with his celebrated remark to journalists, a few months after being elected: “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?”

One of those I spoke to on air was Krzysztof Charamsa, the Polish priest who declared that he was gay and in a relationship just before the opening of the second Bishops’ Synod on the Family in 2015. Shortly afterwards, his permission to celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments was revoked and he was sacked from his job in the Roman Curia. He told me, firmly, that he is still a priest. The priesthood is as much a part of his identity, he said, as his sexuality. He said canon law forbids a priest from having sexual relations with a woman, and, in the eyes of the Church gay men like him simply don’t exist. The Pope and the Church are homophobic and mysogynistic. The obvious tension between Krzysztof’s deeply-felt conviction that being gay and being a Catholic priest was entirely natural, and his rejection by the Church since coming out, made for tough listening.

Just months before Fr Charamsa’s detonation in 2015 came the denouement to the story of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the former Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. An increasingly outspoken critic of gay relationships inside and outwith the Church, it emerged that he had had inappropriate sexual contact with priests and seminarians and even a lengthy relationship with one of them. He had resigned as archbishop in February 2013, and in the spring of 2015, after an unprecedented investigation, Pope Francis withdrew his rights and duties as a cardinal. What a sad end to a life misshapen by secrecy and pretence: the career of O’Brien, and, more recently, that of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, illustrate the cost of the “double life” of which Francis speaks in his interview.

So what now? I can’t help thinking that if we allow who is and who is not consecrated into religious life to be heavily biased by sexual orientation, we risk losing the gifts of people called to love others by giving themselves unstintingly to living and sharing the Gospel as priests and nuns. Discernment at every stage, yes. Discrimination from the outset, no.

I recently had the good fortune to meet and listen to Robert Barron, founder of the wildly successful Word on Fire ministries and an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He was visiting the UK to speak at the Eucharistic Conference in Liverpool. I know a brilliant communicator when I hear one, so I’ll end on some words of his: “If the only thing a gay person hears from the Catholic Church is, ‘You’re intrinsically disordered’, we’ve got a very serious problem on our hands. If that’s what the message has become … we [the Church] are disordered. Message One to gay people from the Church should be: ‘You are a beloved child of God, who has been embraced by the mercy of Jesus Christ and invited to a full share of the divine life. You’re a son of God, called to eternal life.’ ”

Shelagh Fogarty is a radio and television presenter and journalist.

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