One of the hottest topics on the current moral landscape in the West is the issue of homosexuality. Judeo-Christian values have always maintained that homosexuality is a sin against God. This has been challenged for a long time by a pluralistic society, and in recent times activists for homosexual rights have grown increasingly vociferous in the matter.
When Pope Francis was elected to office earlier this year, hope was expressed by many liberal Roman Catholics that he would prove to be a more progressive pope than his forebears. Many saw the need for him to be more tolerant of issues such as homosexuality, abortion and birth control. This week, media frenzy erupted when the pope made what many considered to be just such a progressive statement on the issue of homosexuality.
In a question-and-answer press conference, commenting on homosexuality in the Roman Catholic priesthood, the pope is reported to have said, “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?” The media erupted. Social media came alive with the buzz. It was announced internationally that Roman Catholic moral teaching had changed. Homosexuality had finally been embraced by the pope himself.
But the question is, did anything really change? Was the pope’s statement even remotely as sensational as it has been made out to be? Can progressive Roman Catholics rejoice? Do Protestants have further ammunition to use against the pope and the Roman Catholic Church? Some careful thought, and examination of the actual evidence, is called for.
So what did the pope actually say, and has it in any way altered Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality?
Roman Catholic doctrine holds that “individual homosexual acts” are “intrinsically disordered.” Regarding homosexual orientation (as divorced from the act itself), Roman Catholic doctrine states:
Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.1
In other words, homosexual inclination (orientation) is not a sin in and of itself, but since it naturally lends itself to the sinful act, it should be considered an objective disorder.
The pope’s recent statement in no way altered this official doctrine. The context of the pope’s statement (which has been almost universally ignored in the media) was a question about the presence of a gay lobby within the Vatican. His response was as follows:
There is so much being written about the gay lobby. I haven’t met anyone in the Vatican yet who has “gay” written on their identity cards. There is a distinction between being gay, being this way inclined and lobbying. Lobbies are not good. If a gay person is in eager search of God, who am I to judge them? The Catholic Church teaches that gay people should not be discriminated against; they should be made to feel welcome. Being gay is not the problem, lobbying is the problem and this goes for any type of lobby, business lobbies, political lobbies and Masonic lobbies.2
Note the threefold distinction drawn by the pope: “being gay, being this way inclined and lobbying.” He made it clear that a gay lobby is “not good.” Stated another way, he is in no way interested in altering official Roman Catholic doctrine on homosexuality. However, “If a gay person is in eager search of God, who am I to judge them?” In other words, someone who is homosexually oriented, but who understands that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered,” and who therefore is in eager search of God to keep him from homosexual acts and to deliver him from temptation, ought not to be condemned. Simply stated then, the homosexual act is “intrinsically disordered” and therefore essentially sinful; homosexual inclination, while not sinful in itself, is “ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil”; but the person himself who battles with this inclination is not to be condemned.
How does all of this stand up against the testimony of Scripture? Homosexuality is a massive issue facing the present moral landscape in the West, and we must know how to think biblically about these issues. If the pope has not contradicted Roman Catholic doctrine, has he perhaps in some way countered biblical teaching on the matter?
Clearly, the pope in no way reversed the stance of the Roman Catholic Church that the homosexual act is a sin. The Bible likewise condemns the act of homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9–11; 1 Timothy 1:8–11). The pope, in line with Roman Catholic doctrine, evidently does not see homosexual orientation (or temptation) as intrinsically evil, though it does lend itself to such evil. He further believes that those with such inclination ought not to be condemned. Forgiveness and deliverance are available.
It is often noted that Jesus said nothing, at least as is recorded in Scripture, about the sin of homosexuality, but it should be remembered that same sex relations were universally condemned by Jews, so there really was no controversy for him to speak into. This does not mean, however, that the life and ministry of Jesus offer no guidance on this issue. In the days of Jesus, the Pharisees had elevated two categories of sinners above all others. The Gospel accounts frequently speak of “tax collectors” and “sinners” as the epitome of social evildoers.
“Tax collectors” were hated by first-century Jews. They were considered traitors, who worked for the Roman government and exploited the poor. “Sinners” were those who were involved in public sin—often (but not exclusively) of a sexual nature. Their sin was open to all, and they were routinely condemned by the Jewish religious leaders.
In our time, at least in the evangelical West, we similarly appear to have two categories of sinners: homosexuals and abortionists. To be sure, homosexuality and abortion are sins that are openly condemned by God in Scripture, but the way that we treat such individuals ought surely to be informed by the way in which Jesus treated tax collectors and sinners. Jesus was publicly seen to be a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34; etc.).
When it comes to the sin of homosexuality, we should certainly hate the evil. At the same time, we need to bear in mind Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43–48). We can in no way excuse the sin of homosexuality, but we must treat those embroiled in this sin with the same compassion that Jesus treated tax collectors and sinners—and with the same goal (viz. to reach them with the gospel of forgiveness).
As noted, the Pharisees had created two categories of pet sins: tax collectors and sinners, and there is a sense in which a large segment of the evangelical church today has done the same with homosexuality and abortion. While sin is never to be tolerated or ignored, we should admit that there are far less “public” sins that are equally heinous.
It is a relatively simple thing to condemn overt, obvious sins such as homosexuality, abortion, drunkenness and pornography. Sadly, we often do so while ignoring the more subtle, but equally heinous sins, with which we all struggle: gossip, slander, backbiting, covetousness, etc. In an environment in which pet sins are created, it is easy to self-righteously condemn others while ignoring our own sins. The religious leaders most harshly condemned the tax collectors and sinners, yet Jesus most harshly condemned the religious leaders.
Do we have the right to judge those who are embroiled in homosexuality? Certainly we must stand on God’s Word in calling the act of homosexuality a sin. At the same time, we must avoid the Pharisaic temptation to act as the final judge and withhold all grace and opportunity for forgiveness to those who are struggling with temptation or who have fallen into sin.