Saturday, February 22, 2014

“Who am I to judge?”

The fateful post-WYD conference. (Photo: CNS)
Okay, let’s take it from the top: The Catholic Church exists to preserve and teach the revelation Jesus gave to his disciples during his earthly ministry. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you …. (Matthew 28:19-20)”

That means the Catholic Church does not exist to teach whatever fashionable notions its members want to embrace today, even though Jesus’ earthly mission took place almost 2,000 years ago. Theological inferences and deductions are permissible; doctrine can grow and develop; discipline may change to a degree to better teach the faith according to the culture and the times. But where doctrine is settled and dogma defined, no change is admissible because it would functionally “change” (i.e. distort) the revelation.

Semper Ecclesia reformanda: “The Church is always to be reformed.” However, there’s authentic reform, and then there’s mere innovation. C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, described the difference between the authentic reformer and the innovator most memorably: “It is the difference between a man who says to us: ‘You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?’ and a man who says, ‘Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.’”

It should be no surprise that the Church doesn’t adopt all the “reforms” many Westerners think it should. And it should be no surprise that the Church’s sexual teachings haven’t changed. However, some people still manage to cough up shock and outrage that Pope Francis’ out-of-context quote, “Who am I to judge?”, didn’t completely undo 2,000 years’ worth of moral dogma.


Looking back over the last year’s posts, I surmise that I must have been suffering from mental influenza or backlogged with work while World Youth Day was going on, because I apparently didn’t participate in the “Francis damage control party” effort last August. Allow me to rectify the error:

It was near the end of the press conference, which took place aboard the Alitalia flight back from Brazil. Papa Bergoglio was tired. The reporters were tired. And they all said so, apologizing to the pope frequently for keeping him from his rest. Finally, Fr. Federico Lombardi, the papal press secretary, said, “Who is there still? Ilze [Scamparini of Italy’s Globo TV]? Then we will have given everyone a chance, even more than were registered first ….”

Scamparini asked “a somewhat delicate question: another image has also gone around the world, which is that of Monsignor [Battista] Ricca and news about your privacy. I would like to know, Holiness, what do you intend to do about this question. How to address this question and how Your Holiness intends to address the whole question of the gay lobby?”

Ricca is the prelate Francis appointed to head up the IOR (Institute of Religious Works), essentially the Vatican’s financial office. Ricca reportedly had a gay affair with a Swiss Army captain, Patrick Haari, while he was with the apostolic nunciature in Montevideo, Uruguay, between 1999 and 2000. He’s also been accused of a couple of other incidents that were homosexual-related, and which caused the then-papal nuncio, Abp. Janusz Bolonek, to request his ouster. The “gay lobby”, an unidentified group of high-ranking homosexual prelates who are supposedly trying to (as activist Terence Weldon puts it) “queer the church”, presumably found a way to hide these peccadilloes and reinvent Ricca as “an incorruptible moralizer”, according to Sandro Magister. The scandal broke shortly after Francis made the IOR appointment.

Concerning Ricca, the gist of Francis’ answer was that Ricca had confessed and repented, and was therefore forgiven. While the pope reportedly confirmed the existence of the “gay lobby” in private (per Rorate Caeli), on the plane he joked, “I still have not met one who will give me the identity card with ‘gay’.” Then he said:

I think that when one meets a person like this, one must distinguish  the fact of being a gay person from the fact of doing a lobby, because not all lobbies are good. That’s bad. If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in such a beautiful way, it says, Wait a bit, as is said and says: “these persons must not be marginalized because of this; they must be integrated in society.” The problem isn’t having this tendency, no. We must be brothers, because this is one, but there are others, others. The problem is the lobbying of this tendency: lobby of the avaricious, lobby of politicians, lobby of Masons, so many lobbies. This, for me, is the more serious problem. And I thank you.

Here, possibly because Francis was tired, I believe he was using the word “gay” imprecisely, where we might say “homosexually oriented” or “same-sex attracted” (SSA), because he spoke of the “tendency” rather than “behavior” or “lifestyle” or anything else that would assure us he had actively gay people in mind.[*] Nevertheless, he was right — Catholics can’t judge the status of people’s souls, especially if they’re honestly seeking to do God’s will.

It doesn’t follow, however, that priests can’t withhold sacraments if a person not only admits to sin but indicates his intention to continue sinning. That’s precisely the issue with Ronald Plishka, the gay patient at MedStar Washington Hospital Center who was refused the Sacrament of the Sick recently.

The Washington Post story about the 63-year-old retired travel agent’s contretemps with chaplain Fr. Brian Coelho was a follow-up on a report from the Washington Blade. Terry Mattingly of GetReligion.org notes that “the Post story does get around to discussing the confession angle. However, the headline and lede frames this as a dying man being refused Last Rites.” It’s not clear that Plishka is dying, since the story tells us near the end that he conferred with a priest at the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, who told him that priests “can’t give you [Communion] if you continue that lifestyle, if you’re an active participant.”

Plishka argues, “I’ve tried to be a decent person all my life. I’m not perfect, believe me. And I wouldn’t wish [being gay] on anyone. But you can’t be somebody you’re not. Otherwise you’ll end up 63 and alone.”

But chastity, or more properly continence, isn’t about “being somebody you’re not”; just ask Steve Gershom and my friend Richard Evans. It’s about being the best you that you can be. It doesn’t follow that if you don’t have sex (even non-sinful sex) you’ll end up dying alone. That’s not a deduction; that’s a self-pitying whine, a naked grab at our sympathies.

Pope Francis’ words have been taken out of context and used as a club with which to beat anyone that defends orthodox Christian moral teachings. So what else is new? A few words let loose at the end of a press conference by a tired pope don’t change the structure God gave the universe, either physically or morally.

Gay sex, six months later, is still a sin.


[*] SSA Catholics such as Steve Gershom and Gabriel Blanchard are starting to refer to themselves as “Side B gay Christians”, because the attempts to use different words for the orientation and the behavior “puts up the hackles on [their] gay friends, for whom the phrase [“same-sex attracted”] has the baggage of ugly psychiatric experiments and denial.” See Steve’s excellent post on the matter.