Pope Francis made headlines around the world last week when he seemed to endorse civil unions for same-sex couples, leading many Hillsdale Catholics to question his words and intentions.
“Catholics may be rightly annoyed by the confusion caused by Pope Francis’s recent remarks, but they should not be worried,” Nathan Schlueter, who teaches courses on Roman Catholic theology as professor of philosophy and religion, said in an email.
“Offhand remarks taken out of context in a private documentary have no bearing on clear church teaching on sexuality and marriage, which has been clearly and explicitly affirmed by Francis himself in multiple ways,” Schlueter added. “Faithful Catholics need to be reminded that popes are not popes because they are perfect — look at St. Peter.”
The pope made his remarks in a new documentary, “Francesco,” which premiered at the Rome Film Festival on Oct. 21.
“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family,” he says in the film, according to the New York Times and numerous other outlets. “They are children of God. You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to create is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”
The mainstream media lauded the pope’s comments as a step forward for the Catholic Church regarding homosexuality, and many implied that it may signal a reversal of the church’s teaching that marriage is exclusively between one man and one woman.
Catholic doctrine distinguishes between offhand remarks in interviews and conversations and the concept of papal of infallibility. In specific, limited circumstances, the pope is said to be unable to speak falsely on matters of dogma, a statement called “ex cathedra,” meaning “from the chair.” While theologians debate how many papal statements have been made ex cathedra, most agree that it has only happened twice in the history of the Church.
According to Catholic Society president junior Karl Weisenburger, while Catholics should interpret any statement of the pope’s with charity, they are not obligated to make it fit within traditional orthodoxy unless it is spoken ex cathedra.
“I think it sets a bad precedent to think that every single time the pope says something off the cuff, you have to interpret it in a Catholic framework,” Weisenburger said. “I think it’s charitable to do that, and maybe you will be called to do that, but that’s not what we have to do.”
He also emphasized that there’s no need to worry about the pope straying from dogma if he actually is speaking ex cathedra.
“We don’t need to be concerned about him breaking doctrine while speaking infallibly because that can’t happen,” Weisenburger continued. “So the concern is really that he’s leading the lay faithful to confusion, which is what you should pray about. When you pray for the pope, you don’t need to pray that he’s going to speak infallibly and not break doctrine, because that can’t happen. What you pray for is that the laity isn’t confused by his off the cuff statements.”
Junior David Strobach, vice president of Catholic Society, concurred, and added that the full context of the statement isn’t clear.
“He has a very good precedent of sticking to orthodoxy, but in this case it just seems lost in translation,” Strobach said. “It’s kind of a cherry-picked comment, and we don’t know the whole context; we don’t know the full nuance, we don’t even know what he means by this statement.”
Some Catholics said they believe that even though this statement doesn’t change church doctrine, it is indicative of a more welcoming stance toward LGBT people.
“This is an historic step forward for the church in its relationship with LGBTQ people, and LGBTQ Catholics,” Rev. James Martin, an influential Jesuit priest, said on Facebook.
Pope Francis has been firm in opposition to same-sex marriage in the past.
He wrote in his encyclical “Amoris Laetitia” in 2016 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.”