In his final two days in the United States, Pope Francis provided his most explicit focus on the highly contested social topics of marriage and religious liberty, and he did so by avoiding full support to either the U.S. bishops or the LGBT community on both topics. And in his final public appearance, at the Philadelphia Mass, he made, in the words of a National Catholic Reporter news story “a strong exhortation to American Catholics to be unafraid of trying new things, even if they seem to threaten long-practiced traditions or existing church structures.”
On the morning of September 27th, the pontiff addressed bishops attending the World Meeting of Families, and made his most direct remark about the growing acceptance of marriage equality around the globe:
“Until recently, we lived in a social context where the similarities between the civil institution of marriage and the Christian sacrament were considerable and shared. The two were interrelated and mutually supportive. This is no longer the case.”
[Editor’s note: Although the pope delivered the speech in Spanish, the quotes in this blog post are taken from the Vatican’s official English translation of the talk, which can be read in full by clicking here.]
Francis introduced this observation with a call to the bishops to recognize that social changes in marriage take place over the course of history:
“Needless to say, our understanding, shaped by the interplay of ecclesial faith and the conjugal experience of sacramental grace, must not lead us to disregard the unprecedented changes taking place in contemporary society, with their social, cultural – and now juridical – effects on family bonds. These changes affect all of us, believers and non-believers alike. Christians are not ‘immune’ to the changes of their times. This concrete world, with all its many problems and possibilities, is where we must live, believe and proclaim”
Most remarkable about this comment is the absence of a condemnation of the marriage equality movement, which has become a hallmark of Francis’ discussions on marriage. Equally important though is the implicit acceptance of the fact that civil marriage and church marriage are two distinct realities.
It is this latter point which is the critique of the approach of U.S. bishops who have continuously tried to argue that a change in civil marriage negatively impacts the church’s understanding of marriage. The bishops have tried to argue that the institution of marriage–even civil marriage–is a divinely ordained institution which cannot be changed by civil authorities. Francis’ comment acknowledges that governments and the Catholic Church can peacefully co-exist without sharing the same views on marriage.
At the same time, however, Francis clearly did not endorse marriage equality, civil or sacramental, and, as we’ve reported from talks earlier in the week, his position is clearly that marriage should be kept a heterosexuals-only institution.
David Gibson of Religion News Service observed that the pope made his point “without mentioning gay marriage,” and instead:
“. . .made a brief reference to the legalization of same-sex marriage that the American bishops have made a centerpiece of their public ministry and policy battles, with many of them casting the acceptance of gay relationships as the beginning of an era of exclusion and even persecution for Christians.”
It is the fact that he did not explicitly support the U.S. bishops’ campaigns which is particularly important in his remarks.
In a separate article about the pope’s impromptu speech at a Saturday night celebration for participants in the World Meeting of Families, Gibson made a similar observation about Francis’ discourse:
“. . . [I]n this address, Francis also conspicuously avoided the culture war rhetoric often associated with Catholic leaders and instead stressed the economic challenges that hurt families. . . .
“Notably missing was any condemnation of gay marriage or an exaltation of the ideal nuclear family headed by a mother and father. Nor did the pontiff bemoan the growth of divorce or cohabitation or point to rampant secularization or slackening sexual mores as the reasons that traditional family life is facing difficulties.”
In his remarks on religious liberty at Independence Hall, the pope also took a direction which did not fully satisfy either side of the controversial issue. Perhaps the most salient quote from his speech which embodies the pope’s dual critique of both sides of the religious liberty discussion is the following:
“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or, as I said earlier, to try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religious traditions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and the rights of others.”
The conservative side of the debate, which seeks to advocate for the rights of religious institutions and leaders, the pope’s reference to silencing religious voices in civil debates would seem to satisfy them. Yet, his reference to those who use religious freedom for hatred and brutality would seem to satisfy those on the progressive side who see religious institutions using their faith as a means to discriminate against groups they oppose–too often LGBT groups and individuals.
In an Associated Press news story published in US News and World Report, Rachel Zoll quoted a theologian who observed a deft political move by Francis:
Vince Miller, professor of theology at University of Dayton in Ohio, said Francis, employed “exquisite political skill,” in his speech, which Miller saw as the pope’s attempt to balance conflicting worldviews that prioritize one issue over another.
“He’s very clearly stitching these sides together,” Miller said. “He’s challenging people get out of the defensive ruts they’re stuck in.”
In the same article, papal biographer Paul Vallely noted that the religious liberty speech should be viewed in Francis’ overall theme of the U.S. visit: the promotion of the common good. Vallely stated:
“That speech is not what they would have been expecting in a talk about religious liberty. The pope is saying these rights have to call you to conversation and reconciliation. It’s about balancing.”
Zoll noted as significant Francis’ total omission of any reference to marriage equality, which is the U.S. bishops’ top concern in regard to religious liberty.
Similarly, Religion News Service’s David Gibson offered the following analysis on the pope’s religious liberty talk
Francis kept his remarks on religious freedom philosophical and historical, and he notably did not cite the U.S. bishops’ battles against gay rights or the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.
Both of those campaigns have been a prime focus of the hierarchy’s public policy efforts in recent years, and the religious freedom argument is central to each of them.
With just one more day before he flies back to Rome, the pope used his time defending immigrants and promoting social justice, eschewing cultural-warrior language and encouraging dialogue and engagement.
What is even more significant is that the pope made these comments in Philadelphia, where Archbishop Chaput, leader of the local Church, has been one of the U.S. bishops’ most vocal and strident mouthpieces on “culture war” issues.
At the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families on Sunday afternoon, Pope Francis gave what was perhaps his most passionate and eloquent speech of his trip, in which he urged the U.S. church to be more courageous in trying new things and in reaching out to those who are different. I cannot help but hear in this homily a strong rebuke by Pope Francis of the way that many U.S. bishops have been leading the Catholic Church here.
According to a National Catholic Reporter account:
“In a homily to hundreds of thousands at an outdoor Mass packing Philadelphia’s iconic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Francis said that Jesus’ disciples were also afraid of new things — but that Jesus broke down all barriers to allow the Spirit to do its work.
” ‘Jesus encountered hostility from people who did not accept what he said and did,’ the pope told the crowds, many of whom had waited for long hours to participate in the last of his three public Masses while in the U.S.
” ‘For them, his openness to the honest and sincere faith of many men and women who were not part of God’s chosen people seemed intolerable,’ said the pontiff.
” ‘The disciples, for their part, acted in good faith,’ he said. ‘But the temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles, threatens the authenticity of faith. Hence it must be vigorously rejected.’
” ‘For Jesus, the truly “intolerable'” scandal consists in everything that breaks down and destroys our trust in the working of the Spirit!’ said Francis. . . .
” ‘To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not “part of our group,” who are not “like us,” is a dangerous temptation.’
” ‘Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith!’ he said.
For the past four decades, many U.S. bishops appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI have tried to rein in any new ministries or alternative and creative ways of being pastoral. They have often tried to create strong distinction between what they considered authentic Catholicism and dissenting Catholicism.
Throughout his trip here, Francis has offered his most pointed advice to bishops–a special concern he has had throughout his papacy–directing them to give up this divisive mentality. In his Sunday homily, Francis is offering U.S. Catholics, and particularly U.S. bishops, a new paradigm for a more open and pastoral church. This paradigm, if applied to LGBT issues, could open up a whole new world of possibility and liberation in our church.
Pope Francis did not directly address LGBT people or issues at all in his U.S. visit. Yet, the messages he gave on other issues could have an impact on advancing the inclusion and equality of LGBT people in both society and the Catholic Church.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry