By Christopher Lamb in THE TABLET, 4 December 2018
Pope Francis says he is worried about gays in the priesthood and religious life, ruling that if they cannot be celibate, they should pursue a different vocation.
In remarks made during a book-length interview, Francis showed that his instincts remain that of an old-school fashioned Jesuit superior but one who opposes any restorationist style return to a rules-based, pre-Vatican II version of religious life.
Homosexuality, the Pope tells Spanish priest Fr Fernando Prado, seems to be “fashionable in our societies” and this mentality “influences the life of the Church,” and anyone with an “ingrained tendency” towards same-sex relations or activity ought not to be admitted to the priesthood or religious life.
The comments, contained in the book “The Strength of Vocation”, caused hurt among gay priests and religious who dispute Francis’ claim that sexual orientation is connected to societal trends or fashion, and are already feeling vulnerable to claims that gay priests are the root of the sexual abuse scandal.
But the Pope has also made repeated calls for integrity among those living out vocations to priestly life as monks, friars, and religious sisters, and not making messy compromises with their vow of celibacy.
His language on homosexuality also represents his being a part of a generation that has witnessed rapid social changes in attitudes towards homosexuality, sometimes finding itself playing catch up. Francis will turn 82 later this month.
While the Pope’s latest intervention on gays has caused upset, he is the first Roman Pontiff to address the issue of gays in the Church publicly and is the first Pope to use the word “gay”. He famously replied “who am I to judge?” when asked about a homosexual priest. And, earlier this year, he is reported to have told Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean sexual abuse victim who is gay, that “God made you this way.”
If he emphasises God’s desire to show mercy to those struggling with Church teaching, Francis is strict when it comes to priests and the religious, arguing that those merely seeking a comfortable life in an institution should be shown the door.
It was in 1973 when, at the age of 36, a newly ordained Fr Jorge Bergoglio became the leader of the Jesuits in Argentina, a position he held for six years and in which he was renowned for adopting a tough, and at times authoritarian style.
Francis is not afraid to show that same side as Pope. He tells Fr Prado – a member of the Claretian missionary order who run a publishing house in Spain – that religious should be “incarnated” in their local communities, rather than occupying the ranks of a clerical “aristocracy” where they become cut off from the people they are supposed to serve.
If a trainee priest is admitted to a formation house without an “honest vocation,” Francis argues, then the “future of priestly ministry is being mortgaged.”
The Jesuit Pope makes an important point that it is not gays per se who cannot be priests but those living double lives: that is, individuals who intentionally, wilfully and continually disregard their vows of celibacy. Such a view is in keeping with recent papal rulings and documents on formation and vocation.
“Priests and religious men and women who are homosexuals are urged to live in complete celibacy, and above all, to be exquisitely responsible, trying not to scandalise their communities or the holy and faithful People of God by living a double life,” Francis says. “It is better that they leave the ministry or their consecrated life rather than live a double life.”
Jorge Bergoglio entered the Society of Jesus’ Argentine province in 1958; the future Pope undertook his long years of formation before during and after the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, which re-orientated the Church to the modern world.
The years after saw a large number of religious leave their communities, and the Pope admits during the interview that some congregations made changes that saw them “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” He described the post-Vatican II years as “slow, productive and disorganised” for religious life, adding that religious communities “found a bit of everything when we opened the doors.”
But Francis says changes brought about by the council were necessary, he pointed out the religious sisters who had previously had to ask written permission from their superior for the “most insignificant thing” or a young religious man refused from visiting his mother on her deathbed.
He said those seeking to go back to pre-conciliar days are running into problems, arguing that several new religious congregations, which are of a “purely conservative nature,” have “required intervention.” They have, the Pope said, been afflicted by major “problems and corruption.”
Francis argues the danger facing religious life is ideology, and it was something he said had crept into the life of some religious sisters in the United States in their interpretation of feminism.
But the Pope was critical of those bishops who thought the answer was trying to “discipline” these religious. In 2008, the Holy See launched an “apostolic visitation” into US religious sisters, while in the same year the Vatican’s doctrinal body conducted a “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Both matters were resolved under Francis’ pontificate.
“There were even harsher reactions from some people in the higher echelons of the hierarchy. And instead of accompanying consecrated life with patience, they believed that what had to be done was to use more discipline,” the Pope said. “I always thought that the whip did not work, and the only way to discipline the Church is with the Gospel.”
Fr Prado says that during his four-hour conversation with Francis, which took place at the Pope’s residence in the Vatican on 9 August 2018, he saw “a giant and a simple man, a man of God who, at the same time, is enthusiastic and realistic.”
He concludes: “Francis is a man truly in love with Jesus Christ. I attest to this.”