Pope Francis’s famous 2013 exhortation at a World Youth Day gathering in Rio de Janeiro,“¡Hagan lío!” (“Make some noise!”), has become a signature symbol of his papacy, to the delight of his progressive fans. Liberal Catholics and liberal non-Catholics glow when Francis, not known for prolonged deliberation over word choice, condemns capitalism, stamps his papal imprimatur on global-warming theory, hints that divorced and remarried Catholics might be able to receive Holy Communion without an ecclesiastical annulment process, and declares not only that atheists can go to heaven but that efforts to convert them or anyone else to Christianity amount to “solemn nonsense.”
Perhaps Francis’s best-known off-the-cuff remark was “Who am I to judge?”—a statement regarding gay people seeking God that he uttered on the plane ride home from that 2013 youth gathering. The rhetorical question garnered Francis the LGBT magazine The Advocate’s “Person of the Year” award and a cover photo with the slogan “No H8” photoshopped onto the pontiff’s cheek. “Who am I to judge?” was also one of the rhetorical high points of Wim Wenders’s hagiographical documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, released earlier this year.
So what do all those adoring progressives make of Francis’s latest foray into gay-themed lío? According to news accounts, during an August interview with Spanish Claretian priest Fernando Prado that became part of Prado’s just-published book about Catholic religious vocations, the pope seemed to say that the Catholic Church should stop admitting people with “rooted” homosexual tendencies into the religious life. He said (and I’m quoting here from an NBC report about the book): “The question of homosexuality is a very serious one….In our societies, it even seems homosexuality is fashionable. And this mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the church.” According to the NBC report, Francis made his remarks after a clergyman told him that having gays in Catholic religious housing “isn't so grave” because it's “only an expression of affection.”
That reasoning, Francis said in his interview, “is in error….In consecrated life and priestly life, there is no room for this kind of affection.” He then added: “For this reason, the Church urges that persons with this rooted tendency not be accepted into ministry or consecrated life.” As for men and women with homosexual tendencies who have already made religious vows, Francis ordered them not to act upon their desires in any way: “It is better that they leave the priesthood or the consecrated life rather than live a double life.”
Taken on its face, this is stern stuff, not exactly congruent with “Who am I to judge?” Indeed Francis here sounds not unlike Peter Damian, the tough-minded eleventh-century monk who recommended denying holy orders to anyone who had committed even minor homosexual sins (I wrote about Peter Damian here). Barbie Latza Nadeau, Rome bureau chief for the Daily Beast, panicked accordingly. In an article headlined “Pope Francis Goes Full Homophobe,” she complained that, while Francis might want the Catholic Church to welcome gays into its pews, it seems that he “doesn't want them behind the pulpit.”
The ultra-liberal National Catholic Reporter chose not to emphasize what Francis had said about “persons with this rooted tendency” not being “accepted into ministry.” A December 3 news story focused instead on Francis’s second, and far less contentious, exhortation that gay priests live chastely, just as their heterosexual brothers in religious life were required to do. In a December 7 column for NCR, Jesuit priest Thomas Reese argued jesuitically that phrases like “deep-seated tendency” when used by Catholic churchmen aren’t really synonymous with “homosexual orientation” but instead mean “something akin to ‘uncontrollable’ and therefore incapable of observing celibacy”—and that Francis was using that latter definition in proposing his restrictions on seminary admissions. “You do not urge a group of men to live in celibacy if you think they should be banned from the priesthood,” Reese wrote.
Fr. James Martin, S.J., took the same tack. “[Francis]” first speaks about gay priests expressing their ‘affections’—that is, being sexually active—which he obviously condemns,” Martin said, according to a quote in the Jesuit America. “He says that they shouldn’t be accepted into seminaries or religious orders, but then he says that gay priests should be ‘impeccably responsible,’ leading to the conclusion that he accepts them if they are celibate…. My sense is that he is essentially reminding gay priests to be celibate—like all priests are called to be.”
Perhaps Pope Francis, a Jesuit himself, was indeed being as casuistic as Reese and Martin said he was. And it is certainly true that just as gay men can lead chaste and even saintly lives out in the secular world, gay men can lead—and undoubtedly have led—chaste and even saintly lives in holy orders. But in fact, in August Francis was simply reiterating what he told a group of Italian bishops in May 2018: “Keep an eye on the admissions to seminaries, keep your eyes open…If in doubt, better not let [applicants suspected of homosexual inclinations] enter.”
Francis was also reiterating the policy that the Vatican, under his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had established in 2005: that men “who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture'” are ineligible for the priesthood. (The 2005 document makes an exception for young men who might have experienced “transitory” same-sex attraction as adolescents but requires them to have overcome that attraction for three years before they can be ordained as deacons.) In December 2016 Pope Francis’s Vatican issued a second document continuing that policy.
The underlying problem is, of course, the one that gay-rights advocates and liberal Catholics in general would rather not talk about: that, as the 2004 John Jay College Report concerning priestly sexual abuse revealed, some 80 percent of the victims of priestly sexual malfeasance have been male. And, according to the 2011 follow-up report, some 78 percent of priestly abuse victims haven’t been prepubescent children (whose predators have their own pathology) but adolescents undergoing and past puberty and thus sexually mature in body if not in mind.
In other words, the bulk of the entire unsavory enterprise concerned the abuse of adolescent and adult males by homosexually-oriented priests, activity conducted under the cover of priestly reputation for holiness and a strikingly lopsided adult-teen power dynamic. And ultimately enabled, as the scandals surrounding former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and his seminarians (all of whom were at least in their late teens) have indicated, by a clerical culture that gave such behavior a pass, if it did not encourage it outright. Call this the “gay mafia” if you like.
Catholic liberals have wrested mightily with these stark facts, as they’ve tried to square them with their belief that homosexually-oriented priests pose no more of a threat to young people than heterosexually-oriented priests. But the Vatican’s response since 2005—clearly and repeatedly endorsed by Pope Francis even as his fans scream—has been practical rather than theoretical: One way to eliminate gay culture in the clergy is to eliminate from the very beginning those who might be inclined to participate in it. It’s a bottom-up approach.
Now, if only Francis would make some lío from the top down and take some action, as the U.S. Catholic bishops and many lay Catholics have repeatedly begged him to do. If only Francis would permit an investigation of the arrangements that allowed McCarrick to flourish in his career for decades and the extent to which a gay culture infecting the clergy might have crippled not just the Catholic Church itself but many, many souls.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.