Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Homosexuality and forgiveness: the Pope's surprising message

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 29, 2013

Pope Francis did not alter Church teaching or discipline when he told reporters that he would not judge a homosexual priest. But he did send a very important signal about his pastoral priorities. Most journalists, I’m afraid, have missed that message.

Context is everything. To understand the Pope’s remarks, one must recognize that he was responding to a particular question on a delicate subject: a question about reports that the newly appointed prelate of the Vatican bank, Msgr. Battista Ricca, had a history of scandalous homosexual affairs.

Sando Magister, an influential reporter who covers Vatican affairs for the Italian journal L’Espresso, had proclaimed the Ricca affair the first key test for Pope Francis and his plans for reform. Magister had published the accusations against Msgr. Ricca, insisted on their accuracy, and charged that the “gay lobby” at the Vatican whitewashed the prelate’s record to smooth the way for his appointment.

Pope Francis replied to the question by saying that he had investigated the charges and found nothing damaging to Msgr. Ricca. He might have stopped with that; he had answered the question. But the Pope went further—apparently because he wanted to say something about the question of homosexuality.

If Msgr. Ricca had been guilty of homosexual acts in the past, the Pope indicated, he would not necessarily be disqualified from a sensitive Vatican post. “So many times I think of St. Peter,” the Pope said. “He committed one of the worst sins, denying Christ. And with this sin they made him Pope.”

(My quotations from the Pope here are taken from the valuable but incomplete transcript provided by John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter. Presumably the Vatican will furnish a full transcript soon.)

Sinners can be forgiven, the Pope told the reporters. Sinners can work at the Vatican. Actually, the Vatican staff is composed exclusively of sinners. He cautioned reporters against digging into the past misdeeds of their subjects; that approach is “dangerous,” he said. It is also un-Christian; as Jesus offers forgiveness, so should his followers.

So the Pope did not say that homosexual actions were acceptable. Nor did he say that homosexuals should be welcomed into the priesthood. His statement was perfectly in keeping with current Church teaching and with current Vatican policies.

Nevertheless, the Holy Father obviously had a reason for making these comments. He was indicating that he does not intend to root out all Vatican officials who might have homosexual inclinations. Those inclinations, he said quite clearly, are not the crucial problem.

What is the crucial problem? Pope Francis said that the fundamental issue—remember, in the context of Vatican reform—is the existence of a “lobby.” He spoke of his determination to eliminate any sort of lobby: a lobby of greedy clerics, a lobby of Masons, a political lobby, or, yes, a lobby of homosexuals. If there is a “gay lobby” at the Holy See, the Pope has set out to eliminate it. Far from dismissing that possibility, the Pope said quite clearly that the drive to rout the in-house lobbies is “the most serious problem for me.”

There were two messages, then, in the Pope’s comments. First, he is not interested in a purge of Vatican officials who may have homosexual tendencies. Second, he is very much interested in ensuring that gay clerics do not constitute an active faction within the Vatican bureaucracy—just as he is interested in reforms that will prevent political and commercial interests from forming any such faction.

Read in context, the Pope’s comments show a determination to pursue real reform, ridding the Vatican bureaucracy of special interests. At the same time he has indicated that this reform must be guided by the basic principles of Christian charity. He does not want to punish corrupt Church officials; he wants to convert them into effective apostolic workers.

During an entirely different portion of his in-flight interview, the Holy Father made a very revealing comment about the challenges facing the Catholic Church today. Answering a question about divorced and remarried Catholics, the Pope said: “I believe this is a time of mercy, a change of epoch.”

“A change of epoch”—that is a very striking phrase, a hint that the Pope sees his own plans for Church reform as part of a historic shift. Throughout these first months of his pontificate, Francis has spoken frequently about God’s infinite mercy. He wants to proclaim that mercy, and he wants to practice it. This is the key message of the Pope’s exchange with reporters. God forgives; the Pope forgives; the Church forgives. Spreading this message of mercy is the top priority of his pontificate, and the guiding principle for the reforms he is preparing to undertake.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: steve.grist2587 - Dec. 16, 2016 7:13 AM ET USA

    GK Chesterton concurred as follows: "[t]he perils, rewards, punishments, and fulfilments of an adventure must be real, or the adventure is only a shifting and heartless nightmare....If I vow to be faithful I must be cursed when I am unfaithful, or there is no fun in vowing. .... Christian marriage is the great example of a real and irrevocable result." Orthodoxy, Chapter VII. Thank you for your thoughtful article.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 13, 2016 5:12 PM ET USA

    I hope not to speak out of turn, but the essay is not directed to those cases deliberately. It posits the reality and oft-times inevitability of suffering. "If we acknowledge the reality of spiritual combat at the outset, we may be more prepared to provide true care and comfort for these casualties, rather than pretending that we can all continue the battle without any suffering at all." As in any war there are casualties, but the sufferings of Christian fortitude lead to incomparable joy.

  • Posted by: Flavian - Dec. 13, 2016 11:57 AM ET USA

    Phil: This is a very insightful essay. I am surprised that neither you nor Fr. Reese discussed annulment. Some spouses who leave marriages never intended to remain in the relationship until death. In this case there is the question as to whether the Church witnessed a valid sacramental marriage.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Aug. 01, 2013 9:14 PM ET USA

    Well good for the Pope. You covered a lot here. However, if there is a homosexual lobby, there is a homosexual agenda. With both a lobby and agenda, they are prone not to forgive and forget but to attack and destroy. Look at the United States as an example of what happens when you try to fight homosexuality and the agenda that goes with it.

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Jul. 31, 2013 10:52 PM ET USA

    YES! I just said this in a comment on another post here. Our church distinguishes between the seriousness of sins. They are venial or mortal. That is all we need to know about our sins. They will send you to hell or not. We shouldn't sit in judgment on the sins of others, provided they are repented and in the past of course (character limit folks). But if any of us think ourselves worthy, Christ himself would let us cast the first stone. Ask Him if you are ready to throw!

  • Posted by: - Jul. 30, 2013 12:46 PM ET USA

    We must remember that it is entirely possible for the Church to have a "bad" pope. Look throughout our history. It is filled with corruption, sin, and untruth. But if we truly believe in the office of Papacy, we must put our hope in the Holy Spirit, that he will not permit the pope to officially teach untruth. That being said, I do not think Pope Francis is a "bad" pope. I think one could say, though that he is not careful enough with how he says things. I agree that we need clear teaching.

  • Posted by: wsw33410 - Jul. 30, 2013 10:19 AM ET USA

    Consider this notion - we all ARE sinners and will probably sin till the end of our days here, on Earth. Homosexual tendency is not a sin - homosexual ACTION is!! Ricca, based on presented reports, was an active homosexually in Uruguay. His "promotion" sends wrong signal to all. I worry not about what Pope say but about how he says it and what he SAYS NOT!!! Because he is not clear, we all have an opportunity to interpret what he had in mind. Sorry, I vote for "black and white" words.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jul. 29, 2013 9:16 PM ET USA

    All fine and good, Phil, but why is it necessary yet again to explain what Francis "really means" after the fact? And why does he seem repeatedly to say things that can be misinterpreted only in a way favorable to those who hate the Church's teachings? Why can the secular press never seem to discover in his words a leaning toward absolute orthodoxy? Are they simply missing his unequivocal pronouncements condemning abortion and homosexual actions as objectively grave sin? Ignoring them perhaps?