LAST week, minister for health Leo Varadkar shared a very personal reality for him, via a very public medium. The occasion was marked by much comment. Perhaps the greatest surprise via social media was that he is only 36 years of age. His sexuality, of course, is a very important part of who he is, but a more tolerant and open culture no longer creates a stigmatisation of such reality in life. This is both necessary and in keeping with the Christian spirit of acceptance, inclusion and love.
“Who am I to judge?” With those five words, spoken last year in reply to a reporter’s question about the status of gay people in the Church, Pope Francis stepped away from the disapproving tone, the explicit moralising that has alienated many from the Church.
This gesture of openness, which startled the Catholic world, would prove not to be an isolated event. In a series of interviews and speeches in the first few months after his election, the pope unilaterally declared a kind of truce in the culture wars that have divided the Vatican and much of the world. Repeatedly, he argued that the Church’s purpose was more to proclaim God’s merciful love for all people than to condemn sinners for having fallen short, especially those having to do with gender and sexual orientation.
Pope Francis’s approach is less ideological than intuitive, an inclusive vision of the Church centred on an identification with the poor. From this vision, theological and organisational innovations flow. I believe the move from rule by non-negotiable imperatives to leadership by invitation and welcome is as fundamental to the meaning of the faith as any dogma.
Pope Francis has an approach that is marked by compassion and understanding. In Brazil, he said: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” He has called a young gay Catholic in Toulouse, who had written to him about his inner turmoil in reconciling his sexuality and his faith. “Your homosexuality … It doesn’t matter,” Pope Francis reassured Christophe Trutino.
The Catholic Church need not abandon tradition or doctrine in order to develop and change its attitudes to gay people or its teachings on homosexuality. Instead, it may find it is engaging with a process that is timely socially and legitimate theologically.
The great 19th century theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman described the way Catholic teaching becomes more detailed and explicit over time so that later statements of doctrine can still be considered consistent with earlier statements. Newman argued that the development of doctrine could be consistent with Scripture and tradition, and natural and beneficial consequences can be derived from reason working on the original revealed truth, drawing out consequences that at first were not obvious.
God’s love is never a ‘reward’ for those who tick the right boxes. It’s a radical love, personified in Jesus Christ, whose inclusive love reaches out even more abundantly to where alienation, prejudice and fear often have excluded many people from the established Church.
Perhaps this beautiful theology of Church is best described by Pope Francis: “The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously-injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds … and you have to start from the ground up.”