Puzzling over a Papal Interview

Pope Francis says informal blessings for same-sex couples promote inclusion

Of giving interviews, as with making books, there is no end. But interviews, whether in the air or on earth, are easier on trees. Even so, provocatively important interviews can lead to books. Here’s an example. Vatican News recently excerpted an interview that Pope Francis gave to Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Trusting the accuracy of the excerpt, Francis made a series of comments that puzzle this blogger. Taken together, his remarks could generate a book. But fear not, gentle reader! Lacking the sitzfleisch to produce such a tome, I’ll only survey my puzzlement.

In the interview, the Pope underscores the goal of Fiducia supplicans. It validates informal blessings for same-sex couples and those in “irregular” unions in order to promote inclusion. Nonetheless, serious division has come about among Catholics and their bishops.

In presenting the disputed blessings as intended for people, not couples, Francis notes that “we are all sinners; why should we make a list of sinners who can enter the Church and a list of sinners who cannot be in the Church.” What’s puzzling here? Declining to bless sinners who choose to come forward as couples by no means excludes them from the Church. Has anyone thought otherwise? Indeed, all of us, as sinners, are urged to use the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Would the Holy Father care to explain how we are to understand what appears to be a distraction from the point at issue? Is it just a “red herring”?

Francis acknowledges that Fiducia supplicans has its critics. But he tells us that “those who vehemently protest belong to small ideological groups.” Doubtless some are “vehement.” But others strike me as simply disappointed or confused. Some offer thoughtful arguments against certain formulations of the document, including arguments against its apparent rejection of any further elaboration. Indeed, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the author of the document, has himself joined in further discussion. Are we dealing with another distraction from the point at issue, the reasoned objections to the contested document?

To his credit, Francis does refer to the reception of Fiducia supplicans by the Church in Africa. Here, he says, there is “a special case.” Why so? It is because, he points out, that “for them, homosexuality is something ‘ugly’ from a cultural point of view; they do not tolerate it.” But I’m puzzled about how to understand this “special case.”

For a start, the Bishops of Africa affirm the distinction between homosexual orientation and homosexual practice. They call for not just toleration of, but respect for, people who suffer from same-sex attraction. Those who do so are beautiful, although their disorder is not.

It’s harder, though, to sort out what’s involved in the phrase “from a cultural point of view.” The terms culture and cultural often help us think about the surpassing wealth of our social and linguistic configurations. Sadly, they sometimes serve as platforms for moral relativism. In any case, the Church teaches one Gospel. That Gospel transcends any particular culture. And in any culture, the Gospel calls for repentance. For the most part, though, we all now live in a multicultural world. The principled objection to homosexual acts and ambiguous responses to them is hardly limited to Africa.

Perhaps, though, in Africa the Gospel is preached with greater vigor, and received with more joy, than in the lands of the missionaries who brought the faith to that continent. With my family, I live in Los Angeles. Our Archdiocese is the largest in the country. Without priests from Africa, many of our parishes would be hard pressed to sustain themselves. Thank God for their “special case”!

But an interview and a blog post are only discussion starters. Sustained discussions lead to a book or even two. Who’s up for it?


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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