Today, based on the Gospel reading, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Besides Jesus, the term could usually be applied to our bishops and, more especially, to our Holy Father. However, some of the faithful have been questioning whether Pope Francis meets their criteria of a ‘good shepherd,’ possibly due to some of his “off the cuff” remarks, and the bishops likewise be so listed, as we all know of “problem bishops” who more recently have scandalized the faithful by their poor leadership and less than faithful actions. But I have a different vision of it all.
Last October, a media firestorm broke out over Pope Francis’ remarks in a recently-released documentary, “Francesco,” about the pastoral care for homosexuals. Disputes over the correct English translation of key Spanish terms and uncertainty about whether the filmmaker cut out additional clarifications by Pope Francis for the final version make it virtually impossible at this point to know, for sure, what the Pope said or what he meant to say. “Francesco” does not give us all his words in their fullness; those we hear come to us at the end of the editing process, with no written transcript available to check the film’s accuracy. What further complicates the situation is that the media jumped on commentary made by various people who chose to insert their own opinions and interpretations into the debate.
There’s no denying that papal approval of same-sex civil unions in 2020 would contradict papal disapproval of them in 2003, when the Vatican prudentially applied Catholic doctrinal teaching to the secular state’s regulation of marriage. In words approved by Pope St. John Paul II, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) taught that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to a legal recognition of homosexual unions,” which would likely “cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage.” In the wake of “Francesco,” not surprisingly, journalists and headline writers have been quick to broadcast their assurance that a serious change in Catholic doctrine was under way.
Many Catholics confused by this sudden eruption of controversy need not fight their way through a thicket of details to find clarity of mind and peace of soul. One consideration, which alone is sufficient to set our understanding straight, is that no pope can unilaterally re-define fundamental Catholic teachings in a one-on-one interview reported by a journalist. As shepherd and chief teacher of the Catholic faith, the pope – not the reporter – must exercise editorial control over what he says. He cannot and does not delegate such a great responsibility to a filmmaker in a one-on-one interview. The Pope’s statements in “Francesco”, therefore, are his personal opinions; they do not constitute formal papal teaching that binds Catholic conscience. Those who view same-sex civil unions of the past twenty years as a pathway to the redefinition of marriage are free to disagree, which was their goal all along.
That redefinition (so-called “gay marriage”) does not come up for discussion in “Francesco,” nor does the question of same-sex adoptions; the Holy Father has spoken very clearly on both matters elsewhere. In his view, “to redefine the very institution of marriage” would “disfigure God’s plan for creation,” because “throughout humanity and not only in the Church, it’s been between a man and a woman. You can’t change it just like that. It’s the nature of things. That’s how they are.” Therefore, “It is a contradiction to speak of homosexual marriage.”
A husband and wife make each other father and mother of the children they receive from the Creator to generate and educate. Pope Francis says that in God’s design, “every person needs a male father and a female mother . . . [to] help them shape their identity.” This means that children adopted by same-sex couples are “deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God.” The pope aligns himself with Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2003 warning, in which he predicted that same-sex civil unions would lead to the adoption of children by same-sex couples.
“I have always defended doctrine,” Pope Francis claims; and nowhere in the documentary, “Francesco,” does he deny doctrinal truth on the nature of marriage. Scripture and Church Tradition testify to the basis of that saving truth: only within the promise of married love between husband and wife does the Creator bless the sexual relations of human beings. In a good marriage, the marital example mirrors God’s undying faithfulness to His children “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.” No other physical union can demonstrate what the marital promise to be faithful in a true life-giving marital intimacy does.
Scripture and Tradition reveal and affirm God’s unconditional disapproval of sexual intercourse outside of marriage, whether it be that of adulterers, fornicators, or homosexuals. In each case, condemnation rules out the behavior in question, not the one who behaves. God hates sin, not the sinner. Why? St. Thomas Aquinas explains “God is offended by us when we act against our own good.” When sexual attraction has us in its mighty grip, are not all of us capable of the most profound self-deception? Which of us can easily see the way to what is truly good for us? Do we not feel the strong pull of temptation to “act against our own good”?
Jesus prayed from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We know not – but God knows – where all roads end. Our loving Father made us for happiness; so, He tells us in no uncertain terms which paths not to walk. He knows that adultery, fornication, and homosexual sin bring about ruined lives. Nonetheless, the Father is not quick nor content to condemn the world of disordered desire; He sends His Son as Redeemer to save it. The gifts He brings—chastity, courage, and perseverance—give us the grace to discover in our own flesh the truth St. Paul proclaimed: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”