Syndicated Editorial Cartoonist Mike Keefe’s cartoon for August 2, 2013 shows a smiling Pope Francis, arms outstretched on the balcony outside the papal apartments (which he does not occupy), saying, “Gay Priests? Who Am I To Judge?” and “Women Priests? I’ll Be The Judge Of That.” Four months into his pontificate, the cartoonist captures Francis’ dilemma, the tightrope he is walking – how to appeal to Progressive Catholics calling for meaningful change within the Church, without offending traditionalist Catholics, his predecessor Benedict XVI included, who oppose change. Clearly, two of the most polarizing issues among the faithful today concern gays and women.
Since being elected pontiff in March, Francis has said that women must be given a greater role within the Church, not as priests, but a place that recognizes Mary, the Blessed Mother, is more important than any of the apostles. In explaining his position, he noted that John Paul II had definitively closed the door to female priests. Regarding the Vatican’s assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) with a membership of 1,500 representing 80 percent of U.S. Catholic nuns, however, a statement from Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in April said Francis “reaffirmed the findings of the assessment and the program of reform.” Some leaders of LCWR initially expressed hope that Pope Francis might take a softer line than Benedict XVI.
When the LCWR assessment was launched last year, a Vatican spokesman said that an investigation had found that the group has “serious doctrinal problems,” that it challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood,” and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who was given expansive oversight of American sisters, has announced he will attend their annual gathering in mid-August and will speak of his role as their church-mandated overseer. Unclear, however, is whether Archbishop Sartain will take questions from the approximately 900 women, leaders of the various orders of sisters across the country, who are expected to attend the event. One former LCWR president reportedly said its members are preparing for this year’s assembly with an “ominous feeling.”
While his position on the LCWR has pleased traditionalists, what Francis said recently about gays has given them “aceto.” Just mentioning the word “gay” may have made some Curia members quasi apoplectic. While speaking to the press on his flight home from Brazil after attending World Youth Day 2013, asked about a trusted monsignor who reportedly once had a gay lover, Francis replied, “Who am I to judge?” when it comes to the sexual orientation of priests, as long as they are searching for God and have good will. His words contrasted sharply with those of Benedict XVI who wrote in 2005 that homosexuality was “a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” and an “objective disorder.” Men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies should not become priests,” Benedict added.
Vatican spokesmen were quick to point out, however, that Francis was not suggesting that priests or anyone else should act on their homosexual tendencies, which the Church condemns as a mortal sin. Nevertheless, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily newspaper, used the word “gay” for perhaps the first time in its 150-year history, in an article marveling at the change Francis is bringing about within the Church.
Some commentators are referring to this change of tone and priorities as the “Francis Revolution.” He is certainly shaking things up at the Vatican and in diocesan pastoral centers worldwide. As to whether the popes’ words, which are admittedly pleasing to many, will translate into equally pleasing actions, remains to be seen.