Over the last couple of weeks, I have received inquiries about Pope Francis’ remarks in the documentary film “Francesco” pertaining to civil unions. In addition, an ad was recently published in The Catholic Sun publicizing an award being given to Father James Martin, SJ, by one of our parishes and a livestream event that would accompany it, focusing on a book by Father Martin titled “Building a Bridge” regarding the relationship between the Catholic Church and LGBTQ+ persons. The queries raised to me in both instances concerned the Church’s teachings.
After exploring the pertinent writings of both Pope Francis and of Father Martin, I have found explicit expressions by both that neither is seeking to advance teaching that is contrary to Church doctrine. The approach both clerics are using is first and foremost a pastoral one. It reflects the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” concerning love in a family: “During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children. We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence.”
Moreover, we have also Jesus’ own example of meeting people where they were at, especially those marginalized by society. In fact, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were very vocal about his meeting with such persons who were in their eyes and opinions “irreligious.” In Mark 2:17, one reads: “Jesus heard this and said to them ‘I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.’”
Pope Francis further expounded on this point of Scripture in an interview early in his papacy: “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.” This theme would be echoed in the secular press; the columnist Abigail Van Buren (“Dear Abby”) would write, “A hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.”
This leads us to the ultimate orientation of all of our lives: to be a saint — the fulfillment of the “Universal Call to Holiness” that I wrote about in last week’s column. It is true that no one is born a saint, but each one of us is born with the potential to be a saint — in the words of Thomas Merton, “It is the goal of our existence.” The crux is that we don’t often see life in such terms. In fact, we often in moping fashion proclaim, “I am only human” as an excuse for committing sin. Yet, such a statement is really an oxymoron because to be truly human is to be made in the image and the likeness of God, and that sinfulness is actually a degradation to who and whose we really are.
Regarding Pope Francis’ recent comment on civil unions for homosexual couples, in no way is the pope endorsing same-sex marriage, nor is it a groundbreaking change in the Church’s constant teaching in this regard. Ever since he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergolio has consistently taught that marriage is between a man and woman for a lifetime and that this is God’s plan for having and raising children. Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston observed recently, “Just as the Church does not campaign against civil laws that allow for common-law marriage or second marriages that are not sacramental, even though such arrangements can be in violation of the laws of the Church, the Holy Father recognizes that in civil society there can be cogent reasons to enact such laws providing for civil unions which are not the same as the institution of marriage.” Particularly he notes that Pope Francis has seen civil unions as a way for governments to provide protection of human and civil rights (such as health care and inheritance rights) “for couples in long-term, committed relationships, whether they be siblings or friends or partners. Such arrangements are not always of a sexual nature.”
At the heart of our Holy Father’s teaching is the need of compassion and to meet people where they are at. Again, in commenting on Pope Francis’ recently reported remarks, Cardinal O’Malley observes, “Our task is to show people that we love them and care about them and that together we can strive to be better people, more generous, more courageous and more faithful to what God is calling us to do.”
A legitimate concern raised by clergy and faithful alike is the need to avoid ambiguity concerning the Church’s moral law and its accompanying teachings. At times, one can be given the impression by some speakers, clergy and lay, that the Church may take a different and “updated” outlook on such things as the institution of marriage, including same-sex marriage; co-habitation; abortion; contraception; physician-assisted suicide; euthanasia, etc. Such a presentation would be in error and must be avoided at all costs. While always wanting to show the merciful and compassionate face of Christ, St. Paul urged the Church of Ephesus, “Rather, living [speaking] the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is head, Christ” (Eph 4:15).
There can be no confusion that all persons created in the image and likeness of God have one ultimate purpose: union with God! Consequently, all that leads us away from such unity imperils our souls. Thus, the Church has the responsibility to warn of such consequences as it did with “Humanae Vitae” in 1968.
My reflections in this column direct once again to one important teaching: the dignity and sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death. It is not enough for us to promote the sanctity of life in the womb if we do not do the same for life outside the womb. Furthermore, the root of that dignity is that every man and woman is made in the image and likeness of God; and “God saw what he had made and found it very good” (Gn 1:31).
I hope that in response to Jesus’ command “to live on in his love” (Jn 15:9) I can always reach out to anyone who may feel unwanted or alienated from the Catholic Church. Together, let us accompany one another on the road of holiness to union with God. God’s blessings.