The “Spirit” of the Pope’s Return from Rio

Reminiscent of the immediate post-conciliar era, we are seeing a battle between the “spirit” and the actual words of Francis

Pope Adopts a Milder Tone toward Gays and Women”
— Headline, San Francisco Chronicle July 30, 2013.

Shift in Tone on Gays Thrills Local Catholics”
— Headline, San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 2013.

Stunning Remarks on Gays: Pope: ‘Who Am I to Judge?’”
— Headline, San Jose Mercury-News, July 30, 2013.


In the struggle between illusion and reality, illusion (even delusion) often gains the upper hand. Images can overshadow an idea thought to be fixed. The above three headlines are taken from local papers suddenly paying careful attention to remarks of the Holy Father. Though none of the editorials or news columns actually said that the Church had changed its teaching on homosexuality, the unavoidable impression from the headlines and the articles was that finally the stubborn old Church was on its way to doing so. This reaction was what these varied writers made of the Pope’s remarks on homosexuality, the ones that they thought most important from the papal trip to Brazil.

Judging by the local press, very little went on at World Youth Day in Rio until the Pope’s interview with the Press on his return flight to Rome. Then, like a clap of thunder, the news arrived that the Church had suddenly changed. Instead of opposing gays, the Pope was welcoming them. A new day had dawned. The San Jose Mercury-News editorial affirmed: “What a heartening declaration from the Roman Catholic pontiff. We hope it helps open the minds of some vocal Christians opposed to gay rights.” The Chronicle editorial, entitled “Reboot for Catholicism,” continued: “While he (the Pope) hasn’t gone as far as many liberal-minded Catholics would like, he’s clearly aiming to move the church in the direction of both modernity and radical empathy—the very direction it needs to go after so many years of scandal and turmoil.” We have little doubt about “how far liberal-minded Catholics” and others would like to see the Church go in this area—to full-scale acceptance of the gay life and all it implies.

All the things that the Holy Father said to the millions of youth in Rio about belief, prayer, concern for the poor, humility, and other basic Catholic themes paled by contrast to the remarks about gays. The casual reader of these newspaper accounts could not help but thinking that some radical change of Church doctrine had taken place on the flight back to Rome, one almost the equivalent of denying the validity of the Incarnation.

In context, as even the headlines in Huffpost Gay Voices (July 31) noticed: “Pope Francis Against Gay Marriage, Gay Adoption.” What changed, evidently, was not the doctrine but the “mood” or perception of it. The Pope specifically said: “No overt homosexual activities” are possible or moral. From now on, however, as a friend suggested, we are in for a period not unlike the post-Vatican II era. We then saw a war of words between “the spirit” and the “meaning” of the Council. Now it will be between the “spirit” and the wording of WYD Rio, Return Flight.

Those bishops and others who hold the basic teaching of the Catechism will be up against the “spirit” of Pope Francis’ Rio Flight. After all, he told the youth to protest and to “mess” things up. Everyone will know, or think he knows, that this “spirit” means something different from what the doctrine says. As Father Mark Pilon wrote on The Catholic Thing site: “This is the danger in off-the-record interviews today. What the press is interested in are simply sound bites and controversy. Complex issues like homosexuality and homosexuals in the priesthood cannot be discussed with the media…in this manner without constantly having to correct their misinterpretations and reportorial sensationalism.”

Many writers have quickly pointed out that Pope Francis did not really say anything different from what we can read in the General Catechism or the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s 1986 Document, “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” a document signed by Josef Ratzinger and approved by John Paul II. What is ironic in this whole scene is that the Pope’s sympathy, if we might call it that, leads the homosexual, if it is followed, back to a moral life that he can live in good conscience. This means no homosexual activity and no homosexual lobby or propaganda.

The secular world evidently sees the Pope’s words as a move in the direction of accepting homosexual activity as itself a good and normal thing. This is what the Chronicles editorial means when it spoke of “modernity”. The equivocation on the use of the word “gay” on both sides is striking. It enables the Pope to use the word “gay” to mean someone striving not practice activities associated with that way of life, while the media and certainly the gay organizations themselves take the word to mean a “right” to do what homosexuals “normally” do. This “right” includes all the benefits of marriage in addition to the things unique to the gay relationships.

No gay lobby, as the Pope called it, or no reasonable person would think that the gay movement is about returning those to celibacy those who, either by nature or by choice, claim to be “gay”. It is almost ludicrous to think that they do. A gay person who was trying to live such a celibate life was, however, the context of the Pope’s remarks. He had been asked to judge of the case of a Vatican priest who may once have been involved in a homosexual life but no longer. It is one thing to judge about the eternal status of someone before God and another to judge the nature of certain acts that are proposed to be done or to be avoided. We might say, for instance, of a man who committed murder that we do not know how he stands before God, we do not “judge” him. But we are obliged to repeat the fifth commandment.

Several writers have also pointed out that the homosexual community should be leery of overpraising this Pope on these matters. He may be shrewder than they are prepared to admit. If they begin to read him, they will soon find him telling them that they should live celibate lives and that they can do so. It will not be easy, but more is involved, including their own salvation. The homosexual experience no doubt often leaves the individual wondering if what he or she is doing is right. But today, there are few who tell them of another way.

Pope Francis’ use of empathy and sentiment to call our attention to suffering and injustice has its dangers. As Theodore Dalrymple wrote after the Pope’s recent visit to the Island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean: “By elevating feeling over thought, by making compassion the measure of all things, the Pope was able to evade the complexities of the situation, in effect indulging in one of the characteristic views of our time, moral exhibitionism, which is the espousal of a generous sentiment; without the pain of having to think of the costs to other people of the implied (but unstated) morally-appropriate policy.” This comment can also pretty well describe the sort of reaction the Holy Father’s remarks made in the local press here.


In rereading the 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, I was struck by two passages that reinforce the human dignity that Catholics see in all men, including those claiming homosexual tendencies. The first one emphasizes the freedom that the Church seeks to protect in us from theories that would reduce us to determined beings. It reads:

What is at all costs to be avoided is the unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behaviour of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive and therefore inculpable. What is essential is that the fundamental liberty, which characterizes the human person and gives him his dignity, be recognized as belonging to the homosexual person as well. As in every conversion from evil, the abandonment of homosexual activity will require a profound collaboration of the individual with God’s liberating grace (#11).

At bottom, the Church stands for the essential freedom that each person bears in his soul, a freedom that always, with grace, enables him to be and live as he ought, not as he must.

The second citation reminds us that the Church does not consider a homosexual person as some sort of alien kind of being who belongs to some species unknown to the rest of mankind:

The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents, and gifts as well. Today, the church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental identity, the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life (#15).

This is a wise reflection. We are responsible for how we live because we are free. We are not free to determine how it is we ought to live, but free to live as we ought.

Did the Pope change Catholic teaching? The following remarks of Jennifer Roback Morse seem to sum up the essence of what the Pope said: “The Holy Father did not say anything new in his off-the-cuff remarks to reporters on the Papal flight home from World Youth Day. Everything he said is perfectly consistent with the timeless teaching of the Catholic Church, which holds that there is an important moral distinction between sexual desire and sexual acts.”

Most of the articles and editorials in the local papers, to their credit, mentioned this distinction. None of them thought that it did not mean a radical change in the Church’s teaching on homosexual life and practice. The Pope has not changed the Church’s teaching, but the fact is, many think, on the basis of the “spirit” of the Rio Return comments, that he has or will. What else can headlines that tell us of a “milder tone,” trilling shift,” or “stunning remarks” mean?

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).