By Gary Gutting
October 6, 2013
Many liberal Catholics have been encouraged by Pope Francis’s comments about sexual ethics in a recent interview. His general point was that these are lesser matters, not to be emphasized at the expense of the church’s essential message of healing and salvation. Asked about homosexuality, he simply evoked God’s love for all humans: “when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? . . . In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.” More widely, he said: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods . . . . The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
Nevertheless the pope, unlike many Catholics, seems still to accept the hierarchy’s official views on abortion, contraception and homosexuality: “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” Presumably, then, he agrees with the official line that these actions are seriously immoral. In an earlier interview he similarly accepted the official view that divorced and remarried Catholics may not receive Communion and that women cannot be priests.
But as many liberal Catholics recognize, this doctrinal line is no longer intellectually defensible. Traditional Catholic themes like respect for life, the family as a primary aim of sexual activity and the dangers of reducing sex to pleasure remain vital to an adequate sexual morality. But the insistence that any abortion, any homosexual act, any use of contraceptives is simply immoral will not withstand rational reflection. (A full defense of this claim is beyond the scope of this piece. But one salient point is that, although the bishops claim that their views on these topics are knowable by natural reason without the aid of revelation, hardly anyone except conservative religious believers sees the force of the rational case.)
Unless the pope is prepared to reject the hierarchy’s absolute condemnation of these actions and revise the official teaching, his comments reflect merely changes of style and tone. These are welcome as far as they go, but they fall far short of the reform needed if the church is to fulfill its fundamental aim of bearing witness to the truth.
There are two other comments in his interview that suggest Pope Francis might be open to this essential witness. One sketches his views on “thinking with the church”: “all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilities’ in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together.” A pope with this view — itself rooted in Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” — might well fashion a theology of sex in dialogue with laypeople who are far better attuned to the realities of human sexuality than most bishops.
Even more important are Pope Francis’s remarks about the role of uncertainty in religious life. The stubborn refusal to admit mistakes is the original sin of the Catholic Church. But Pope Francis speaks of the “uncertainty” always involved in the process of spiritual discernment and emphasizes that “the great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties.” Here the pope shows signs of having learned what most of his recent predecessors have not: that even what we take to be divinely revealed truth is a historical construct, requiring periodic refinement and revision. The question is whether he is willing to recognize the inadequacies of the hierarchy’s dogmatic stances on sexual ethics and develop a more adequate position.
If Pope Francis does want to pursue this path, his remarks suggest that he will do so with deliberation, much consultation and in small but decisive steps. Here’s a scenario that is not entirely implausible and that could begin a true Catholic reformation. Pope Francis, picking up the ball dropped by Paul VI, could once more convene a panel, representative of the entire church, to advise him on the question of birth control. Such a committee would very likely recommend (as Paul VI’s did) allowing at least the pill as an acceptable method of family planning. The pope would then write an encyclical, citing the doctrine of the church as the whole people of God, and maintaining that a pope alone, even in consultation with the bishops, cannot properly make a decision on this central moral question. On this basis, he should revise the teaching on birth control.
Do I expect Pope Francis to do such a thing? No, because, despite some encouraging comments, he has repeatedly, “as a son of the church,” endorsed standing doctrines. But if his embrace of uncertainty can even in a few cases overcome his filial docility, Pope Francis could initiate the reform the church so desperately needs.