Francesco stirs things up as intrepretations fly

Francesco stirs things up as intrepretations fly Evgeny Afineevsky, director of the documentary about Pope Francis titled Francesco

Hardly a week goes by without some sort of a religious controversy blowing up. And the pattern is often the same – exaggerated headlines, soundbites and one-liners, with pre-reflective rushes to the ramparts.

And so it was last week when Pope Francis was reported to have said, in a new documentary, that he supported civil unions for gay people.

On the Nine O’Clock News (RTÉ One, Wednesday), Jackie Fox’s report referred to the Pope’s comments, seven years earlier, about not being judgemental of gay people who sought God with good will, while also, as Fox said, “reaffirming the Church’s position that homosexual acts were sinful but homosexual orientation was not”. Ursula Halligan of We Are Church thought this had “huge implications” for Catholic teaching and called for a new encyclical. Fox ended her report by saying that Church doctrine stays the same.

On Thursday’s News at One (RTÉ Radio One), Bryan Dobson spoke of the Pope using “some of the clearest language”, though if that was the case there would hardly have been the same wide range of interpretations. Former president Mary McAleese thought it was “in complete contradiction” to Church teaching, overstated I thought, but she hit the nail on the head when she said “Popes don’t make new rules through documentaries”.


By contrast I thought she understated considerably when she said that “he doesn’t appear to be saying he supports civil marriage”.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was interviewed separately. He said our attitude had to change, that there were homophobic tendencies even in Church leaders, and curiously that people being frustrated with their gay identity leads them to be homophobic in ways. He said there was a clear distinction between the man-woman relationship in marriage and civil rights being addressed properly. When he said something similar previously he said he’d got a headline saying he was in favour of gay marriage, which he wasn’t.

He said the challenge was how to recognise the special relationship of man and woman without giving the impression that anyone outside that was second class: “both are right, there’s space for both”. That begs a few questions.

On Sunday Sequence (BBC Radio Ulster), The Irish Catholic editor Michael Kelly saw reaction depending where you are on the church spectrum, where lines are drawn. Pope Francis, he explained, was building on things he had said previously in Argentina relating to distinctions between Church and State.

He had taken a pastoral approach, informed by his work with young gay people thrown out of their families in the macho culture of that country. His words would have impact in countries where gay people were oppressed – effectively he was saying that people shouldn’t use the Faith or its sacred texts as “a pretext to discriminate”.

People, especially Catholics and journalists, need to be way better informed…”

The Pope was walking a tightrope as he also maintained the Church’s traditional understanding of human sexuality.

Theologian Tina Beattie was also interested in the varying reactions. She pointed out that in between the affirmative language another phrase had been edited out, where Pope Francis said “I can in no way approve of homosexual acts”. She realised it wasn’t changing the teaching, but thought there was an element of “fudge” – not enough in it for people “ambiguously on the margins”.

Bernard Lynch, a gay activist who was ordained a Catholic priest and now has a same-sex partner to whom he is civilly married, thought the Pope’s words were “wonderful” but “not a seismic shift”. I thought he was very unjust to the previous Popes, accusing them of “hatred” for gay people.

Presenter Audrey Carville seemed to think it noteworthy that here we had a Pope “no longer afraid to talk openly and in a positive way, about human sexuality” – has she not read John Paul II’s talks on Theology of the Body, or Benedict XVI’s encyclical on love?

Considering the whole debate, I think that the Church needs to be clear and consistent in its teaching, needs to find new ways of expressing it that will resonate today, especially with young people, needs to choose words carefully, and show that love is the driver.

More broadly, people, especially Catholics and journalists, need to be way better informed as to the nature of different church teachings and documents, more educated as to what teachings can and can’t change and clearer on the difference between a teaching and the words with which it is expressed. That would help.

Pick of the week
EWTN, Saturday, October 31, 9.30 pm

The Lord of the Rings is much more than a hit novel and blockbuster movie. Tolkien’s masterpiece is a Christian parable filled with important spiritual messages and symbolism.

RTÉ One, Sunday, November 1, 11 am

A Eurovision broadcast from St Martin’s Church in Sneek in the Netherlands. The celebrant is Fr Van der Weide, a priest, singer and organist. Commentary and translation is by Fr Thomas McCarthy OP.

Channel 4, Thursday, November 5, 8.35 am

The Angry Family: The whole family meet the local priest to explore what – and who – is to blame for the constant bickering.