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The Pope and Juan Carlos: A different take on the alleged conversation

At the end of the day, the question for anyone intent on criticizing Pope Francis for saying what he is reported to have said, is really this: what did you want him to say?

Pope Francis gestures as he delivers his talk during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Feb. 28. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Did Pope Francis tell a gay man God made him “that way” and loves him “just the way he is”? The question was the subject of a good deal of discussion last month, after abuse survivor and victim advocate Juan Carlos Cruz reported hearing the Holy Father make those remarks during the course of a weekend visit at the Casa Santa Marta. The issue returned in a piece by Nicholas Senz for Catholic World Report on occasionalism — “an idea,” Senz writes, “that is both widely held and deeply flawed: that God causes everything.”

Senz’s piece handles the academic side of the issue competently: he successfully unfolds a broad swathe of intellectual history, explaining a dense and complex weave of difficult philosophical concepts in a mostly non-technical register that renders the matter accessible without “dumbing it down”.

Nevertheless, his treatment elides a significant piece of the moral analysis of the episode, which was the occasion of his reflection. The lines to follow are an attempt to recover that piece — not so much in critical engagement with the address Senz did offer, as in order to further our understanding of the episode that gave rise to his reflection.

The episode to which Senz referred was the one in which Cruz reported Pope Francis as having told him, “Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter. God made you like that and he loves you like that and I do not care. The Pope loves you as you are, you have to be happy with who you are.”

Whatever else we might say about the alleged incident, there is an important sense in which a perfectly adequate response can and even ought to be: “So what if he did?”

The version of the quote given above comes from the Catholic News Agency’s report, which is based on the El Pais write-up on Cruz’s remarks to the paper subsequent to his private weekend visit with Pope Francis at the end of April. Cruz himself is reporting speech he recalls the Holy Father as having made. So, basically, we’re dealing with reports of reports of a report of speech (originally made in Spanish and then translated into English).

Let’s suppose both Cruz’s recollection and the English translation are accurate, though: what, then?

The first thing to note is that the speech reported is susceptible of an orthodox construction (or at least of being supplied with one). God does love Juan Carlos Cruz: nothing Mr. Cruz ever does will ever change that. God did make Juan Carlos Cruz, just as surely as He made you and me. While God does not make our defects, He does allow us to have and bear them in our persons according to His permissive will under His all-knowing and merciful providence. He does love Juan Carlos Cruz just the way he is, just as He loves each of us, just as we are.

One might take issue with the Pope’s alleged assertion that God made Mr. Cruz gay, on the grounds that it plays fast and loose with theological categories, and that it too readily admits of equivocation. That’s true as far as it goes, and fair enough in the main. It is also largely beside the point, for reasons that require some elucidation.

Anyone unacquainted with the details of the case could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Pope Francis was not only attributing to God an evil, but one wrought by the predations of one of His priests. Where same-sex attraction comes from ultimately remains only very partially and imperfectly understood, but there is a high correlation between people who experience same-sex attraction and people — men and women — who suffered abuse as children and adolescents.

Anyone familiar with the story that is the reason we know Mr. Cruz’s name and care about what he says Pope Francis said, will know that Mr. Cruz’s abuser — the disgraced Chilean celebrity pedophile priest, Fernando Karadima — learned of Mr. Cruz’s experience of sexual attraction to men from information obtained under the seal of confession. So, the experience of same-sex attraction is something Mr. Cruz brought to Karadima. This likely made Mr. Cruz an easy mark for the execrable filth that preyed on him, but it also means Mr. Cruz’s circumstances were such as to preclude so facile an armchair application of developmental psychology.

At the end of the day, though, the question for anyone intent on criticizing Pope Francis for saying what he is reported to have said, is really this: what did you want him to say? Even if one is not willing not to fault the Pope for his theological imprecision, one might at least give him a pass for skipping the lecture on struggles with conforming to the Church’s sexual ethic, when the audience is comprised entirely of a victim of clerical sex abuse.

If one thinks this unfortunate, well, so do I. When I’ve written about the Pope’s poor governance leading to compromised and diminished capacity to give moral witness, I was using descriptive, even prosaic language. This is what you get. This is what we have. This is where we are.

It may be fair to decry the use that folks in or allied with the LGBT movement make of such circumstances as have presented themselves over the past few days, to score points and make hay while the sun shines. It certainly is not fair to go for the easy wicket against Pope Francis or Mr. Cruz or our fellows on the other side of important social and ecclesial questions in the same breath.

Suppose for a moment that all the worst one might think or say about the so-called “gay lobby” is true — I do not think it is — and think it through: If “those guys” are going to take and twist anything anyone says, then all the clarity in the world won’t touch them. That fight must be won by changing operational conditions and strategic objectives. On a tactical level, it involves finding a way to converse with people who do not seem to inhabit our moral universe: history has shown us that such work is delicate, dangerous, and usually very costly, though needful — all the more so the longer we put it off.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 213 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. The phrase that has been largely ignored and which I find the most disconcerting is found in the latter portion of this alleged statement by the Pope; “God made you like that and he loves you like that and I do not care.” How are we to understand this? The Holy Father “does not care” that this man is engaged in a struggle against serious sin? Does the Holy Father not care that this man likely left this encounter with the Pope with the idea that acting upon his homosexual impulses is in conformity with the way that God made him? Would the Holy Father “not care” if someone told him that they routinely exploit and defraud their employees to enlarge their income? All sinful behavior needs to be confronted in a loving and compassionate manner, this is one of the spiritual works of mercy. Not caring is not a valid pastoral option. “Brothers, even if a person is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit (Gal 6:1).”

  2. Well, okay.

    Nevertheless, as with AL, the Pope could have clarified with Altieri’s concerns in such a way that it would have been a teaching moment for the world at large as well as the faithful concerning homosexuality.

  3. Having worked with Courage groups for years and having taught psychology for an equally long time, I think it fair to say that the jury is out on the etiology of same-sex attraction: nature or nurture? or a bit of both? In some sense, the etiology is beside the point. Let us suppose that an individual is born with diabetes. Does that give the person a pass to eat a whole chocolate cake every day? If he goes into a diabetic coma, what would we say? That it is God’s fault? Or, that the person did not exercise the necessary restraint and prudence? I hope the analogy is helpful.

  4. Just because Cruz was a victim of sexual abuse by a priest and himself admitting to being a homosexual –
    does not justify the Pope’s enabling him to go and sin as he likes.

    It would be like me saying, just because my mother used to beat me up and almost killed me as a child, I am therefore justified to abort my own unborn child.

    Altieri not very smart, is he?

    • Who said that the Pope told the man to “go on sinning”? I am no fan of Francis’ less-than-clear speaking/writing, however, let’s not put words in his mouth, either.

  5. “Gay” is a political word invented for a purpose. The pope knows this but chooses to use it anyway. His predecessors chose not to use it.
    Homosexual is an orientation. Gay is the lifestyle. A very unhealthy lifestyle. The pope knows this, of course.

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