In a talk from the autumn of 2013 which was made public this past weekend in the Italian magazine La Civilita Cattolica, Pope Francis described families headed by same-gender couples as one of the new educational challenges facing the Church.
“ ‘On an educational level, gay unions raise challenges for us today which for us are sometimes difficult to understand,’ Francis said in a speech to the Catholic Union of Superiors General in November, extracts of which were published on Italian media websites yesterday [Saturday, January 4, 2014].
“ ‘The number of children in schools whose parents have separated is very high,’ he said, adding that family make-ups were also changing.
“ ‘I remember a case in which a sad little girl confessed to her teacher: “my mother’s girlfriend doesn’t love me’,” he was quoted as saying.
“The Pontiff said educational leaders should ask themselves ‘how can we proclaim Christ to a generation that is changing?’
“ ‘We must be careful not to administer a vaccine against faith to them,’ the 77-year-old Pontiff added.”
It’s difficult to know what to make of the pope’s attitude toward gay couples based on this small amount of information. On one hand, it is unsettling that he used a negative example of a child’s experience of same-sex guardians. On the other hand, his comment about not giving them “a vaccine against faith” seems to indicate that he realizes that a humanitarian approach is needed.
One definite positive insight is the pope’s awareness that the church needs to examine ‘how we proclaim Christ to a generation that is changing.” That insight is way overdue in the Catholic world. Social attitudes and practices regarding gender, sexuality, marriage, and family have been changing for decades now, and yet church leaders, for too long, have chosen to either ignore these changes or to staunchly oppose them to the point of alienating whole swaths of the population.
Yes, Pope Francis is right: a generation is changing. But, not all those changes are bad. Indeed, some are very good. Catholic leaders do need to be aware of these changes and to adjust the way they present the gospel. What worked in 1954 will not work in 2014. The gospel message of unconditional love is the same; the audience, however, is vastly different. People need to hear the gospel message in a way that speaks to their lives and their new realities.
If the pope is serious about developing a new way to proclaim Christ to a new generation, the best thing that he can do is to listen humbly to the voices of the people who experience these new realities: women, separated and divorced people, single parents, same-gender couples, parents of LGBT people, and single LGBT people. His move last year to encourage bishops to seek input from the laity on marriage and family issues in anticipation of the 2014 Synod on those topics is a good first start, but more has to be done, too.
New ways of proclaiming the gospel to our contemporary world are long overdue. Pope Francis’ call for change is a good beginning. He needs to make sure that this new call is truly new and that he does not inherit the old, negative attitudes toward gender, sexuality, marriage, and family, which have done so much harm for so long.
Pope Francis’ call has a precedent from over 35 years ago, when Brooklyn’s Bishop Francis Mugavero wrote his pastoral letter, Sexuality: God’s Gift. In that document, which was the first ecclesiastical document in which a bishop spoke directly to lesbian and gay people, he told them;
“we pledge our willingness …to try to find new ways to communicate the truth of Christ because we believe it will make you free.”
It is from that direct statement that, in 1977, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent borrowed the term “new ways” to identify their newly established educational ministry for the church and lesbian/gay community: New Ways Ministry.
Pope Francis would do well to mirror Bishop Mugavero’s spirit of openness and innovation, which, unfortunately, was not promoted by the Vatican over the past 30-plus years.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry