What the Pope Did and Didn’t Say on the Plane

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Papal plane rides have been known to get people talking. Infamously, there was Pope Benedict’s 2009 plane ride to Africa, when a remark about condoms was woefully misunderstood (and the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, the man who would later be pope, was one of the explainers/B16 defenders, as it happens).

And here we are again! After spending time with each reporter on the plane ride over, but expressing his reluctance to do interviews, the pope talked openly with reporters on the trip back to Rome, even thanking them for their questions about sensitive issues.

What’s making news is an announcement that he has broken away from Pope Benedict on the issue of homosexuality and the priesthood. Reading John Allen’s notes from the conversation, that doesn’t quite seem to be the story.

“There’s a lot of talk about the gay lobby, but I’ve never seen it on the Vatican ID card!”

“When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem . . . they’re our brothers.”

If the chronology of Allen’s report reflects the conversation, Pope Francis had just finished talking about redemption, the fact that Peter himself denied Christ and would later become pope. He warned against a culture in which sins of the past are dug up on people. Should a sin – we’re talking a sin, not a crime – destroy a man, decades later? That doesn’t seem Christian, it seems clear, was the pope’s point.

In context, it is important to bear in mind how Pope Francis talks about fatherhood, and as it pertains to priests, who are called to be spiritual, pastoral fathers in a very real and essential way.

Since becoming pope, he has been incessantly talking about divine mercy. And he has been indicting all Catholics – and in no small way people who work at the Vatican (though know there are saints there, too) – with his morning homilies and his words in Rio this weekend, calling us out for holding back from God, for our lack of authenticity, for our inconsistency with God.

On Friday night, after the Stations of the Cross, Pope Francis had tough words for the kids gathered, about life, death, and Hell. Are you going to be Pilate or are you going to help with the cross, stand at the foot of the cross? Do not be part-time Christians, he frequently says. What does that mean? It means Jesus doesn’t tell us to evangelize if we have the time or feel like it, as Francis put it Sunday at Mass on Copacabana beach; rather, it’s a command, and it begins in a life of constant, renewing surrender to God’s will for each one of us.

With that context in mind, and knowing that, Saint Joseph has played a major role in this papacy already –  Pope Francis’s inaugural Mass was celebrated on his feast day, the Holy See has been consecrated to him and St. Michael. Aware, too, that fatherhood, and the fatherhood of priests, has been another theme of the Franciscum revolution, it’s hard to see anything he said this morning about homosexuality as a rift, but rather part of and consistent with a broader, all-encompassing renewal.

In his 2010 book-length interview, Light of the World, Pope Benedict said:

Homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation. Otherwise, celibacy itself would lose its meaning as a renunciation.  It would be extremely dangerous if celibacy became a sort of pretext for bringing people into the priesthood who don’t want to get married anyway. For, in the end, their attitude toward man and woman is somehow distorted, off center, and, in any case, is not within the direction of creation of which we have spoken.

He cited a Congregation for Education decision in years previous to the interview “to the effect that homosexual candidates cannot become priests because their sexual orientation estranges them from the proper sense of paternity, from the intrinsic nature of priestly being. The selection of candidates to the priesthood must therefore be very careful. The greatest attention is needed here in order to prevent the intrusion of this kind of ambiguity and to head off a situation where the celibacy of priest would practically end up being identified with the tendency to homosexuality.”

He said all that only after making clear that “Respect for man is absolutely fundamental and decisive.” We are “human beings with problems and . . . joys.” Those with homosexual inclinations “deserve respect . . . and must not be discriminated against.” When he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a letter was released to bishops on homosexuality and pastoral care which stated clearly:

It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.

Whether Francis or Benedict, this is all consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

It’s important to bear in mind that the pope today seemed (we’ve been reading partial transcripts in news stories) to be talking about men who are priests, not seminary candidates. Fundamentally, he was talking about mercy. It wasn’t a break with Benedict or a policy change but an elucidation of Church teaching (which popes don’t make up on airplane rides). 

My reading of what he said on the plane today is consistent with what I’ve read from Cardinal Bergoglio. In a book-length interview he did, Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio, published in English after his elevation to the papacy, he warned of “degrading reductionism” that frequently surrounds issues of sexual morality and other aspects of human behavior, often the most intimate and controversial.

He said:

The Church preaches what it believes is best for people, what will make them most complete, happiest. But a degrading reductionism often occurs. Let me explain: The most important thing about a sermon is the message of Jesus Christ, which in theology is known as the kerygma. It summarizes the core Christian tenets: that God is in Jesus, He made Himself man in order to save us, He lived in the world like one of us, He suffered, He died, He was buried, and He came back to life. This is the kerygma, the message of Christ, which causes astonishment and leads to contemplation and belief. Some people believe straightaway, such as Mary Magdalene. Others believe after a period of doubt. And others need to put their finger in the wound, like Thomas. Each individual has his own way of coming to believe. Faith is the encounter with Jesus Christ.

His point, he goes on to say, is that, “After communing with Jesus Christ comes reflection, which is the role of the catechism.” 

“The Church’s principles, the moral and religious rules . . . do not contradict the human ones, but rather endow them with a greater degree of completeness,” he explained.

The former cardinal of Buenos Aires continued: “I observe a degradation of the religious message in certain enlightened Christian elites due to a lack of living the faith.” He said he worried about “’relegat[ing] the treasure of the living Christ, the treasure of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, the treasure of living a Christian life, which has so many other implications beyond the questions of a sexual nature, to being of secondary importance.”

The Church’s teachings on sexual morality are important parts of a bigger picture that can uplift and redeem men. Missing that bigger picture misses a treasure – the beauty of the fullness of Catholicism – and thereby impoverishes our debates and our lives. The pope’s apostolic journey to Rio, a pilgrimage of prayer, sacrament, sacrifice, and challenge, has unfortunately been reduced to what he didn’t quite actually say about sex on the plane. 

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