Despite much ado about the recent Synod on the Family, problems with the format and a few bishops saying some really dumb stuff about which they really ought to have known better, the Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) appears to be mostly in line with what the Church has consistently taught, but emphasizes more than ever, the need to be more pastoral and less judgmental in our approach to sin and sinners, at least in regard to those with same-sex attraction.
I confess that I have not yet read the whole document, which weighs in at a whopping 260-plus pages.
For our intents and purposes, I would like to focus specifically on what the pope has to say to those of us who struggle with same-sex attraction, although this occupies only two of the 324 paragraphs in the document.
Earlier in his papacy, Pope Francis caused some controversy with his famous "Who am I to judge?" comment. During an in-air press conference, the pope was asked about gay, celibate priests. His reply was, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Although he spoke in Italian, he used the English word “gay.”
There was nothing wrong with what the pope actually said, except that he treated a very nuanced teaching in a way that would have benefited from more careful explanation. But those who lobby to have the Church's teachings changed were quick to assert that this was Francis trying to turn the Church away from her traditional teachings about homosexuality because he used term "gay" instead of referring to people who experience same-sex attraction. It was seen as a papal assertion that it was "OK to be gay". His use of the word, they claimed, somehow carried with it an endorsement of a "gay identity" which in later writings, including his encyclical on the environment, he firmly repudiates.
This new exhortation puts that controversy to rest. At least in these two paragraphs, Francis strikes the rare balance of being utterly uncompromising about the Church's teaching while being completely loving of everyone who has to live with it.
Here are the two paragraphs from Amoris Laetitia, followed by what I consider to be the important "take-aways" from it:
250. The Church makes her own the attitude of the Lord Jesus, who offers his boundless love to each person without exception. During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children. We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.
251. In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”. It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex”.
1. The pope does not refer to anyone as "gay". From the first mention of the subject in paragraph 250, the pope uses the Church's traditional framework to address the issue. Indeed, people are not called "gay" anywhere in the document. Although I respect those who do label themselves this way, I agree, with the Church, that doing so reduces our entire identity to our sexual preferences.
2. Pope Francis reminds us that Jesus loves everyone without exception, regardless of what we have done or what we struggle with. We cannot lose sight of this!
3. He recognizes the incredibly painful situation of some families who have members who deal with this and says that the Church should be doing more to help. Nowadays, who doesn't have family or friends who deal with this?
4. Repeating the constant teaching of the Church, he says that everyone deserves to be respected and loved. He rejects any mistreatment, violence or aggression against people because of his or her sexual orientation. It seems like a no-brainer, yet it is enough of a problem that the pope feels the need to address it once again. It is quite welcome in a world where members of ISIS tie men whom they think are homosexual to chairs and throw them off the tops of buildings to their deaths.
5. While recognizing the dignity of homosexual people, the pope correctly points out that there are limits. In perhaps the strongest language ever used by a pope, he unequivocally rejects same-sex marriage and says it can never be equal to true marriage between a man and a woman.
6. In addition, he also rejects what he has previously called "ideological colonialism," and soundly condemns any political attempt to pressure the church or other governments to accept same-sex marriage, particularly when it impacts the poor.
As a man who has struggled in this area, I welcome the pope's clarity on this issue and I hope that in some small way, this letter will help us all in our journey toward Jesus Christ.
Finally, to close out this post, I wanted to offer the following quotation from the pope's recent book, The Name of God is Mercy. This is a clarification of his "Who am I to judge?" comment:
"I am glad that we are talking about 'homosexual people' because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity. And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love."
I'm glad we are talking about it, too.