News that Pope Francis will visit the U.S. next year for the triennial World Meeting of Families brings elation to Catholics, excitement to pope watchers — and perhaps a little chagrin to some who too soon interpreted Francis’ broad compassion as a precursor to doctrinal changes related to marriage.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In recent comments in a variety of forums — from the bishops’ synod last month to the international, interreligious “Humanum” colloquium this week in Rome — Francis has delivered a pastoral message that is consistent with the church’s long-held beliefs on marriage.
What’s different is his language. He has sought fresh ways to see and think about things. And though he’s unyielding in his definition of family — a man and woman joined in marriage — he is open to finding ways to include more people in the church who may fall outside that definition.
This doesn’t mean acceptance of same-sex marriage, as some have led themselves to believe in the past year. The idea that the church was changing — radically — was based on a distortion of some of Francis’ earlier, offhand remarks to a few reporters in July 2013 following World Youth Day. What he said was that if gay people “accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?”
We all heard it or read the remark, or at least the last part, because they became the buzz of social media and cable television. Was the pope saying he approves of same-sex marriage? One would have thought. He also said: “They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [homosexuality] is not the problem. … They’re our brothers.”
Same-sex marriage, like abortion, may be one of those unresolvable conflicts between church and state. But Francis clearly has suggested that he wants to make pastoral changes without changing doctrine. This might mean offering communion to gays and divorcees, for example, who otherwise are excluded from the sacraments.
This is the current battle behind Vatican walls, sources tell me. But it is pastoral, not doctrinal.
For his part, Francis is focusing attention on the family crisis by using fresh language that frames things in a new way. In his comments to the colloquium, attended by religious leaders from various theologies and countries, the pope talked not of sin or judgment but rather of concern for what he characterizes as disruptions to the human ecology. His argument sounded more secular and scientific than religious, not that these are mutually exclusive.
“We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment,” he said. “This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.”
As a result, he said, an ecological crisis has been created for social environments that need protection just as natural environments do.
“And although the human race has come to understand the need to address conditions that menace our natural environments, we have been slower to recognize that our fragile social environments are under threat as well. … It is therefore essential that we foster a new human ecology.”
A new human ecology.
Francis specifically appealed to young people to resist the “poisonous environment of the temporary.” Asking the Insta-generation to avoid the temporary is like asking a hummingbird to hold still, but Francis understands the zeitgeist.
“Be revolutionaries with the courage to seek true and lasting love, going against the common pattern,” he said.
Be revolutionaries. Be brave. Go against the grain. Pope Francis, like Jesus, is no peacemaker. He is a rabble-rouser — in a good way.
Indeed, marriage is a revolutionary act today. And it does require courage — along with humor, commitment and a hundred other things.
Thus, the young might wonder, Why bother?
We bother, says Francis, because the family is our first school where we learn the arts of cooperative living and where “we can aspire to greatness as we strive to realize our full capacity for virtue and charity.”
Profound and true. Yet, this definition offers nothing to preclude gays from seeking to marry for those very reasons. The pope — and our new human ecology — gives us much to ponder.
To reach Kathleen Parker, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.