The Pope, the Pop Star and the Mardi Gras

06/03/2015

Pope Francis
Pope Francis.

Sydney’s annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras will be held this weekend. The media images of this event typically emphasise scantily clad, muscle bound guys and exorbitantly dressed drag queens dancing around on floats. This hyper-eroticism and gender fluidity are a stark contrast to the moral vision of the Catholic Church that has often been publicly mocked and ridiculed during this event. The “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” are a good example of this mockery. Another example is the way in which the term, Mardi Gras, has been appropriated for this event. Originally, a Mardi Gras festival was a Catholic festival held on the day before Ash Wednesday, to mark the beginning of Lent. Mardi Gras festivals have traditionally been focussed on pancakes and other good food, in association with some form of carnival as a contrast to the season of fasting that occurs during Lent. This original Mardi Gras concept has been completely distorted by the version that is celebrated on the first Saturday of March each year in Sydney. In the context of this traditional antagonism, how is it possible that Elton John, a famous celebrity and prominent gay rights advocate, holds Pope Francis in such high esteem?

On October 30, 2014, Elton John proclaimed at an AIDS fundraising event in New York that Pope Francis was his hero and that he should be canonised now! Elton John’s enthusiasm for Pope Francis stems from his belief that Pope Francis is a loving man who wants everybody included in the love of God and that Pope Francis is trying to change the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual ethics to accommodate the approval of the homosexual lifestyle. What has given Elton this expectation? Is it possible for the Catholic Church, with its long tradition of opposition to the practice of homosexual acts and sexual activity outside the context of marriage, to credibly change the way it deals with people who experience same sex attraction?

The source of Elton’s hope is based on the way the secular media have interpreted some of the statements and actions of Pope Francis. On the way home from the Rio World Youth Day in July 2013, Pope Francis made the following statement to his travelling media entourage:

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

This statement was picked up by the secular press and social media and was interpreted that he was going to modernise the Church’s teaching. Consequently media commentators became very interested in the outcome of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family that was held in October 2014.

The Synod was conducted in a manner in which participants were encouraged to speak freely about their reflections on the challenges of families in the modern world. There was some discussion at the Synod about how parents should relate to children that experience same sex attraction. Furthermore, the way the Church should minister to the children of same sex couples was also considered.

At the end of the first week of the Synod, a mid-term report was released that fuelled further speculation from the secular media that a change in Church teaching in regards to same sex attraction and a number of other contentious issues, was on the cards. The release of the final report from the Synod that came out a week later emphasised that:

“…men and women with a homosexual tendency ought to be received with respect and sensitivity.” (Relatio Synodi, #55)

However, the final report also stated that:

“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family.” (Relatio Synodi, #55).

This outcome was essentially a restatement of the Church’s traditional teaching. The secular media interpreted this outcome as a strategic loss for Pope Francis. A number of media outlets were of the opinion that Pope Francis was trying to change the Church’s teaching as represented by the mid-term report but the conservative factions within the Synod ganged upon him to ensure that the final document had toned down the Church’s position on a range of hot button issues.

It was at this point in time, in the immediate period after the Synod, that Elton John made his comments about Pope Francis. However, a few weeks later, on October 17, 2014, Pope Francis made an address to the Humanum Conference in Rome addressing the subject of the complementarity of man and woman. A few excerpts from his speech are highlighted below:

“the complementarity of man and woman…. lies at the foundation of marriage and the family.”

“Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child's growth and emotional development.”

“May this colloquium be a source of inspiration for all who seek to support and strengthen the union of man and woman in marriage as a unique, natural, fundamental and beautiful good for people, families, communities and societies.”

These sentiments clearly indicate that Pope Francis’s personal position on questions such as same-sex marriage is consistent with the Church’s traditional teaching. His comments at the Humanum Conference are at odds with the narrative that the secular media has been publicising. This dichotomy may be the reason why Pope Francis’s comments at Humanum have not been widely publicised in the secular media.

Pope Francis’s personal position on this topic was revealed further during an inflight press conference, this year on January 19, during his flight from the Philippines to Rome. Pope Francis recounted an instance in which an Argentinian Minister of Education was forced to include a book promoting gender theory within a school for the poor, as a condition for a foreign aid loan. He described this loan condition as a form of “ideological colonization.” He went on to compare the moral gravity of this ideological colonization with the actions of the fascist dictators in Italy and Germany in the 20th century [1].Once again, this message did not receive a lot of attention by the secular press.

Pope Francis’ comments at Humanum and during the flight from the Philippines indicate his firm belief in a traditional view of the role of men and women in the context of marriage and the family. Elton John might be disappointed to hear this news.

We must still ask is Pope Francis’ approach to the new evangelisation, with an emphasis on love and mercy, appealing to a new group of people, those on the ‘margins’, who had previously not taken the Church seriously? Is their interest arising from a new encounter with Jesus or a misguided hope that Church teaching will change and that they will be able to sleep better at night with a clear conscience?

Mercy is a key focus for Pope Francis in his preaching. In his General Audience on October 2, 2013 he stated the idea that the Church was only for the, “…pure and perfectly consistent” as heretical. He is encouraging members of the Church to take a message of mercy to all people. He has emphasised that the Lord wants to hear us say to him, “Forgive me, help me walk, change my heart! [2] His emphasis on changing people’s hearts is another key feature of his approach. To reach the hearts and imaginations of his global audience, Pope Francis uses a more colloquial style of language and symbolism with an emphasis on the beauty and joy of the Gospel. It remains to be seen whether his large following continues to journey with him towards Christ. While Pope Francis is working at the global level, how does his message apply at the local level of a parish? If a same sex couple appeared at your parish one weekend how would you respond?

The Church teaches that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. God loves every human person irrespective of their sinfulness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that while homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered (CCC 2357) men and women with same sex attractions must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity (CCC 2358). Furthermore, the Catechism teaches that every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided (CCC 2358). Hence people experiencing same sex attraction should be welcomed in parishes. But does this mean they should go to Holy Communion? In our current times, people who don’t receive Holy Communion can feel like they are being judged for being one of the only people sitting in the pew, while over 95% of the congregation walk down the aisle to receive this sacrament. This modern trend can make some people who are struggling with leading the moral life feel less welcome if they can’t go to Communion. The Church has always taught that Catholics who have committed serious sin should go to confession before receiving Holy Communion.

However, there may be same sex couples who are much older and no longer engage in sexual activity. Are we in a position to judge whether people are in the state of grace when they go to communion? Priests are in a much better position to make this judgment especially if they are involved in the spiritual direction of people who are struggling with living chastity. The care and companionship that these couples give to each other can be an example of self-giving love.

Can same sex couples, or any other person for that matter, come along to Mass and do as the modern hymn suggests, “Come as you are” but also stay as they are? Pope Francis, as I mentioned before, is encouraging people to ask the Lord to change their heart but this process doesn’t happen overnight. St Augustine spent many years praying the prayer “Lord give me chastity and continence but not yet.” Individuals struggling to lead a life of virtue are not meant to make this journey by themselves. Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhoration Evangelii Gaudium has called priests, religious and the laity to engage in an, “art of accompaniment” with people returning to Church to “make present the fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze.[3] This accompaniment must proceed steadily and must involve, “our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life.[4] Another part of accompaniment for people experiencing same sex attraction could involve introducing them to the Courage Outreach. Courage [5] is an international Catholic organisation, with a branch in Sydney, that helps people experiencing same sex attraction grow in the virtue of chastity. They have also developed Encourage which is a group that helps the families and friends of people experiencing same sex attraction.

A recent documentary called the “Desire of the Everlasting Hills[6] tells the story of three people who have rediscovered their Catholic faith in later life and have been able to move away from their homosexual lifestyle to experience new found freedom and purpose. The documentary is intimate and candid in describing the journey of these three individuals.

While Elton John and the secular press are trying to make us think otherwise, Pope Francis is not trying to change the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. However, he is taking a new approach to evangelisation that uses symbolism and colloquial language to appeal to the hearts and imaginations of a broad group of people. He wants to call everyone regardless of their sexual orientation, to experience Christ’s love and mercy. In this love and mercy they will find their true self and true freedom. Pope Francis seeks to call all the participants in Mardi Gras’ around the world to Christ whether they are of the traditional variety and even the Gay and Lesbian variety. He is calling Elton John and all people experiencing same sex attraction to come on a journey as he seeks accompany them from afar with their eyes fixed on Christ. This journey is one that goes to the core of our being, our heart, in which all our wounds and sinfulness can be healed if we open the door to Christ. We are also called to reach out to people on the margins to journey with them with our eyes fixed on Christ to be transformed from within so they can fully realise the dignity and purpose of who Christ call them to be.


[1] IN-FLIGHT PRESS CONFERENCE OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS FROM THE PHILIPPINES TO ROME, Papal Flight
Monday, 19 January 2015, accessed on 5/3/15 from
http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/january/documents/papa-francesco_20150119_srilanka-filippine-conferenza-stampa.html accessed 5/3/15
[2] General Audience, October 2, 2013
[3] Evangelii Gaudium, #169
[4] Evangelii Gaudium, #169
[5] http://couragerc.org/
[6] https://everlastinghills.org/

 


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