Pope Francis and gays: A misinterpretation or a hint of the future?

Francis’ “Who am I to judge” opens a whole new set of questions – and answers – for the Church.

One must always be careful to interpret Vatican rhetoric in context. When Pope Francis answered a question on ‘the gay lobby’ at the Vatican with”Who am I to judge?” the media focused on gays and judgement and missed some important points about Francis’s theology.

The first point was that this rhetorical question was not an answer to a question about gays but about rumors of a ‘gay lobby.’ Note both words, ‘gay’ and ‘lobby.’ The first part of his answer diffused the emphasis on ‘gay’ by saying he’d not met any card-carrying gays at the Vatican. Instead he focused on ‘lobby.’ Given Francis’s emphasis on the church not being a corporation or an NGO, the word ‘lobby’ is even more sinister in Vaticanese than in American political lingo. For Francis the word whether connected with ‘gay’ or not would imply that the lobbyists were not centered on the Gospel but on a particular ideology, i.e., they interpreted the Gospel in terms of some ideology and did not think of the church in terms of the Gospel. They were in effect creating a politics or ideology in place of the Gospel. He is not going to tolerate this whether the lobby is gay or straight.

The second point the media missed is the theological context for Francis’s remark. His pastoral approach focuses on the person not the orientation. He redirected attention to highlight a person’s quest for a genuine relationship with God. He is very concerned about developing a healthy theology of the human person in which to situate that relationship with God. He even admits that the Catholic Church doesn’t have an adequate theology of ‘woman.’ In that context who is he to pass judgment on the genuine relationship of any person, gay or straight?

Third, Francis does not see his own ministry as pope as that of a top-down executive. He has not used the most famous Petrine/papal text, one that calls Peter the rock on which the church is built. Rather he uses a text from the gospel of Luke where Jesus charges Peter to be supportive of his fellow Christians. Francis takes that ministry seriously. He refers to himself not as pope but as bishop of Rome, bishop among his brother bishops.

So Francis’s statement on gays, “Who am I to judge?” reveals more about his theology of church, ministry, and human nature in relation to God than of any thoughts on sexuality of any kind.

However, Vatican rhetoric needs to be interpreted not only in the context of words but also of action. Francis is something of a maverick among bishops on the question of gays. When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he is known to have supported a civil union for the sake of pastoral ministry and civil rights though he was voted down by his fellow bishops. He is bringing his support for gays to his ministry in the Vatican. More important than his comment at the airline press conference is his action. The day after he spoke those memorable words the Vatican announced the resignation of Bishop Simon Bakot of Yaound , former president of the National Bishops’ Conference of Cameroon. Bishop Bakot did not resign for reason of age as Catholic bishops are required to do when they reach 75; he is only 66. Nor is he known to have been in ill health or under scrutiny for financial reasons or his own sexual misconduct. The sole reason he is famous is for his staunch opposition to gays. He lumps them with pedophiles and practitioners of bestiality and calls them an affront to God’s creation. He threatens to ‘out’ clergy he opposed by revealing their sexual orientation. He has even been a vocal public supporter of Cameroon’s national day of hatred of gays. The fact that his resignation was accepted the day after Francis’s now famous utterance casts new light on the Vatican’s stance toward gays.

So what are we to make of Francis’s declaration “Who am I to judge?” The first thing is to see it in a theological context that puts the person and the person’s relationship with God to the forefront, not sexual orientation of any sort. But in addition, one should not miss the historical context of Francis’s own program as bishop in Argentina, one just recently reinforced in his office as bishop of Rome. He may not judge a gay’s quest for God though he would support it but he surely has passed judgement on a fellow bishop utters terribly negative judgments on gays, judgements that will no longer be tolerated as long as Francus is pope. Given Francis’s theology of the papacy as ministry to his brother bishops, Francis just may be suggesting that they too should see the office of bishop as one whose prime duty is that of shepherd: bringing people, all people, into a closer relationship with God.

Maureen A. Tilley is Professor of Theology and Medieval Studies at Fordham University.

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