I think it’s time for a Pope Francis reality check. As a former Roman twice over I generally hesitate to comment on matters Vatican, since anti-Roman bias or a failure to grasp Roman teaching could easily (if, I believe, falsely) be alleged. But the unbridled enthusiasm of progressively-minded folk for His Holiness’s several hints in the direction of greater inclusiveness toward gay people (most recently this one) moves me to venture a few remarks.
Let’s be clear (and a little graphic) about Roman teaching on this point: the only context in which sex can be morally good is marriage between a man and a woman, and in that context sex must be directed toward both uniting the two spouses more intimately (through shared pleasure) and begetting a child. Sexual desire that does not fit this paradigm is, though not immoral in itself, nevertheless disordered.
It will be noted that what this rules out touches the lives of a lot more people than gay women and men. Even within a straight marriage much is forbidden: birth control in any form (except – bizarrely, from a moral theology point of view – the “rhythm method”), oral and anal sex, mutual masturbation, and withdrawal before ejaculation (if done with the intent of preventing conception). Outside straight marriage sex is entirely forbidden: sex between a married person of whatever gender with someone of whatever gender who is not his or her spouse (of course), sex between unmarried persons of whatever gender, and masturbation.
The only element of this dogmatic package from which Pope Francis has hinted at the possibility of softening is in a very restricted way the bit about contraception, with an eye toward curbing the spread of sexually transmitted disease.
A gentler pastoral attitude toward gay people is neither negligible nor new. The Catechism produced during John Paul II’s notoriously gay-unfriendly pontificate insists that such persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” in the same paragraph in which it renders the “objectively disordered” verdict on gay desire.
And this is precisely where Pope Francis, with all his charm, stands: even as he calls for an ecclesial apology to the gay community he speaks from within the paradigm of homosexuality-as-disordered-desire. This is what lies beneath his description of the gay person as someone who “has that condition.” He does not by any means propose that the Roman Church apologize for the impact of its teaching on gay lives, but for the effects of a pastorally insensitive or perhaps inadequately nuanced implementation of that teaching.
Can one instruct gay persons that their desires are disordered and that the only morally good use of their sexuality requires abstinence from intercourse and masturbation while also “accepting” them with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity”? There was a time when I thought this possible and tried very hard to do it. I no longer do and I now belong to a catholic church not in communion with Rome in which the attempt is no longer necessary. There are people I respect who are still trying and Pope Francis is one of them. But I would argue that such a view of sexuality, however approached, does harm.