Get ready for a lot of public reconsideration of Pope Francis on both sides of the cultural divide in the US and around the world. In an interview with a Spanish priest working on a book, the pontiff expressed his concern over homosexuality within the Catholic clergy as “something that worries me.” Francis declared it better for gay men in the clergy to leave rather than live a double life, and tells his interviewer that bishops should weed those with “deeply seated” homosexuality out of the seminaries:
Francis is quoted in the book as commenting on a clergyman who had told him that having gays in Catholic religious housing “isn’t so grave” because it’s “only an expression of affection.”
That reasoning “is in error,” Francis said. “In consecrated life and priestly life, there is no room for this kind of affection.”
“For this reason, the Church urges that persons with this rooted tendency not be accepted into (priestly) ministry or consecrated life,” he said.
He urged homosexuals who are already priests or nuns to be celibate and responsible to avoid creating scandal. “It is better that they leave the priesthood or the consecrated life rather than live a double life,” he said. The pope has warned Italian bishops in the past to vet seminarians closely and reject those they suspect might be gay.
Hoo boy. If that’s indeed what Francis said, he’s about to get an avalanche of anger — in some cases from the same people who cheer Francis for his commitment to more progressive issues. Bear in mind, though, that whether this is precisely what Francis said may well be in question. We’ve seen translation issues before, and at other times the media has stripped meaningful context from statements made by popes and other Vatican officials. (So far the Vatican has not commented on the accuracy of this translation.)
Assuming this is an accurate report, though, it’s going to go off like a bombshell. Conservative elements within and outside the Catholic Church have long warned of a gay-clergy problem, and they have blamed the pedophilia-sex abuse crisis on it. Having that view endorsed by Pope Francis will give those conservatives a massive boost in credibility. The more liberal elements in the church demanding more engagement with the LGBT community will find themselves undercut significantly, perhaps decisively so as bishops start enforcing Francis’ vision in the seminaries. It all but endorses the view put forward by former papal ambassador Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano that a “homosexual network” exists within the Vatican and through the seminaries that has been responsible for the multi-generational scandal. Given how hard the Vatican has pushed back against Vigano, this declaration from Francis is quite surprising at the very least.
It’s a bit curious how Francis put this, too. Priests, monks, and nuns are already expected to be celibate and chaste regardless of their sexual orientation, so that quasi-exception mentioned by Francis should already be the norm. At least theoretically, homosexual impulses shouldn’t matter as long as long as those vows are maintained, and those men and women with sexual attractions deemed disordered by the church have an outlet for sacrificial service by maintaining their chastity in the consecrated life. Furthermore, while much of the sexual abuse around the world has involved predation on young boys, that’s not been all of it. Girls and young women have been victimized by priests too, which makes this at best an incomplete response to the endemic issues of sexual abuse and cover-ups.
For those demanding reforms, though, it will at least be a response. Just how seriously Francis views this as a problem should be known fairly soon. If the church starts pushing people out of the seminaries — especially in their faculties — then the fight will be well and truly on.