A Triumph of understanding over pretension

| by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( August 1, 2013, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) On Monday, Pope Francis made the statement on board the Alitalia flight that was taking him back to the Vatican after his brief visit to Brazil - that he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation. This statement has interesting connotations not only because the Pope’s predecessor, Benedict XVI signed a document in 2005 which said that men who had deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not join the priesthood, but also because it is time the Church evolved to meet the cultural changes going on in the world.

I have always been baffled by Pope Benedict’s edict for two reasons, the first being that it matters not whether a young man joining the priesthood is gay or a motile heterosexual because they are not expected to exploit their carnal desires whilst in the priesthood. Not to be too explicit, whatever their proclivities are, they are expected to keep them within their cassocks. The second reason is that homosexuality or pedophile tendencies do not necessarily “arise” after one enters the priesthood, as they are deeply rooted features that are physically inherited.

Pope Francis’s view is seemingly consistent with that of John Rawls, in his “Theory of Justice” brought out the interesting hypothesis of the “veil of ignorance”. According to this concept, if we start off by shedding any and all prejudices and leanings, whether moral or political, economic or religious, and do not know who we are when we collectively carve out our laws, policies, practices, we would retain an overall position of equality. This is consistent with what Pope Francis calls “brothers”.
Getting back to Pope Francis, he added to his general statement the corollaries that gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten, on the basis that “if a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him”? This transcends the primeval bigotry that is associated with the traditional leanings of the Church and introduces the refreshing concept in Pope Francis’ words that “when someone sins and confesses, God not only forgives but forgets. He is reported to have gone on to say “we don’t have the right to not forget”.

Obviously Pope Francis had good reason to come out with these words, being a man more of substance than style projecting the image of a humble priest, inspired teacher and wise and adroit member of the Society of Jesus. In the book “ Pope Francis – His Life in His Own Words” ( Putnam:2010) which contains a series of interviews with the Pope at the time he was a Cardinal in Argentina, Pope Francis answers the question “ The Bible has the Ten Commandments, but also the Beatitudes. Benedict XVI once stressed that the Catholic religion is not a “catalog of prohibitions” with the response: “ ...I am very much in agreement. This is very clear in his (Pope Benedict’s) encyclicals about charity and hope. What’s more, when Benedict XVI went to Spain, everyone thought he would criticize the administration....because of differences with the Catholic Church on various matters. Someone even asked him if he had spoken with the Spanish authorities on the subject of marriage between homosexuals. But the Pope stated that no, he spoke with them about positive matters and the rest would come later. In some way, he was saying that first you have to emphasize the positive, the things that united us; not the negative, the things that divide us. You must prioritize the connection between people, the path we walk together. After that, addressing the differences will be easier”.

On the subject of celibacy, which goes to the root of sexual orientation and the many instances of sexual abuse now proven against many members of the Catholic clergy, Pope Francis says in the book: “Right now, I stand by Benedict XVI, who said that celibacy should be maintained...I am not convinced that eliminating celibacy would cause such an increase in those called to the priesthood as to make up for the shortage (of priests). When asked : “ But what do you say to those who think it could prevent incidents of sexual abuse” , Pope Francis responded: “ Seventy percent of cases involving pedophiles happen within the family or the neighbourhood environment. We have read stories of boys abused by their fathers, grandfathers, uncles and stepfathers. In other words they are psychological perversions that existed prior to choosing a life of celibacy... and celibacy does not cure that perversion...”

Pope Francis shows empathy and understanding in the event a priest wishes to leave the priesthood for sexual reasons. To the question: “Notwithstanding the monitoring in seminaries, there continue to be those who abandon the priesthood, primarily to get married” (This question also seemingly applies to a homosexual leaving the priesthood) Pope Francis responded: “celibacy is a choice in life. There are times a priest can come to doubt himself, if he meets a woman in the parish and thinks he has fallen in love...that’s normal...I am the first to share in this moment of a priest’s life...I stay with him; I accompany him on his journey. If he is sure of his decision, I even help to find him work. What I don’t allow is a double life. If he can’t lead his ministry I ask that he stays home...”

Getting back to his statement in the aircraft on his way back to the Vatican, Pope Francis added: “The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says (homosexuals) should not be marginalized because of this (orientation) but they must be integrated into society...we must be brothers. The problem is lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worst problem”.

From a philosophical perspective, Pope Francis’s view is seemingly consistent with that of John Rawls (1921-2002) an American political philosopher who, in his “Theory of Justice” (1971) brought out the interesting hypothesis of the “veil of ignorance”. According to this concept, if we start off by shedding any and all prejudices and leanings, whether moral or political, economic or religious, and do not know who we are when we collectively carve out our laws, policies, practices, we would retain an overall position of equality. This is consistent with what Pope Francis calls “brothers”.

We have to go back to basics if we are to link this sexuality issue with the Catholic faith. “For God shows no partiality” ...(Romans 2.11)....“ There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” ...(Galatians 3.28), “ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1.27)...“ For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3.26-29).

Pope Francis is on the right track. But one hopes he can continue to put his money where his mouth is and if God said...” there is no male or female”, he should initiate ordaining females to the priesthood. If this is not done, all these would just be empty words of a realm of continuing discrimination, blatantly contrary to God’s tenets.

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