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Famously, pious Catholics have taken to holding their breath when Pope Francis gives an impromptu interview, hoping the Holy Spirit will keep the pontiff from uttering error on faith or morals. As philosopher Peter Kreeft said on a recent podcast, this pope has "a genuine heart and compassion for [the] suffering" but "he's not a great intellectual." This combination, a hallmark of liberalism, explains why the postmortem of Francis' recent Associated Press interview urging the legalization of homosexuality was so predictable — progressives rejoiced while traditionalists fumed. Both interpreted the pope's comments in light of a preconceived narrative, and it seems both were off base. But all things considered, there's little justification for claiming Francis' sentiments represent a marked departure from Catholic tradition on the intersection between law and morality.
The first point Francis delivered was more confusing than it was actually controversial: "Being homosexual isn't a crime." This short statement is problematic for a few reasons. Firstly, there is a crucial distinction not being made here, between those saddled with a same-sex attraction and those who choose to act on it. Secondly, it's not immediately clear if the pontiff is referring to a moral crime (against human nature) or a civil crime (against the State). A third problem is his use of the word "being," which speaks to the very essence of a person. The term "homosexual" began as an adjective describing feelings or actions, but, for political and ideological purposes, devolved into a noun representing people. It looks like Francis may have fallen into that trap. Same-sex attraction is not something you are, but rather something you feel.
Additional context makes it clear the pope was referring to practicing homosexuals rather than those with disordered same-sex attraction alone and that he meant civil crime rather than crime against nature. For the sake of clarity, then, let's reconstruct his statement to reflect what he seemed to have meant: Although it's a sin, sodomy should not be a civil crime with civil penalties.
Thankfully, the pope did stipulate that homosexual behavior is a sin. His focus, however, was trained on civil penalties, particularly those common in Africa, which he's now visiting, where the death penalty for homosexual behavior remains intact in several countries. Specifically, Francis proclaimed, "It's not a crime. Yes, but it's a sin. Fine, but first let's distinguish between a sin and a crime. It's also a sin to lack charity with one another." While Francis faithfully reasserted Catholic doctrine by calling homosexual acts sinful, he also appended his prudential judgment that such acts should not be outlawed by the State.
Be aware that papal interviews express the mind of the pope and should be respected, but in themselves have no magisterial authority that would bind Catholic consciences. His opinion on decriminalizing homosexuality is not doctrinal and certainly not infallible, but it is his papal prerogative to advocate for what he believes to be justice. Keep in mind, the death penalty is the punishment for sodomy in Somalia, Sudan, Mauritania, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Brunei and parts of Nigeria.
From a pre-Christian theological perspective, the death penalty is the just deserts for the heinous sin of sodomy. The Mosaic Law of the Old Covenant recognized that grave offenses against the Ten Commandments warranted death. Christians still believe "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), but they recognize that Jesus vicariously died for us and sent His Spirit to redeem us. His death on the Cross renders immediate physical death for mortal sin unnecessary and unsuitable in the context of the New Covenant.
Under Moses, the death penalty followed serious transgressions of all but the last two Commandments. Notably, capital punishment was employed for breaches of the Sixth Commandment such as adultery, fornication and homosexual acts. But the law of Moses ultimately ripened to the law of the gospel, which, in some respects, amended how justice is meted out. As philosopher Peter Kreeft often says, "Jesus [reconciled] justice and mercy on the Cross: We get the mercy; He gets the justice."
The fact that Christian nations eventually restricted the use of capital punishment to the most heinous crimes (such as murder), with many abolishing it altogether, underscores the distinction between Old and New Covenant mindsets. While the Western world has recently devolved into post-Christianity, some countries in Africa and the Middle East have remained pre-Christian in their spiritual and cultural outlooks. A stark policy contrast now exists.
That said, the pope's visit to Africa undoubtedly served as an important backdrop for the concerns he expressed in his interview with the Associated Press.
Now let's take a closer look at Francis' prudential judgment. Should sodomy, which is a crime against nature, also be a crime against the State? While you may disagree with Francis on this issue, intellectual honesty demands that you acknowledge that he can claim good company among some of the titans of the Faith. Although they didn't specifically mention sodomy, the two greatest Doctors of the Church, Augustine and Aquinas, taught that not all sin and vice should be prohibited by the State. They deemed imprudent, for example, laws against prostitution and fornication. For instance, the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas, posited,
[God] allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine ii, 4): "If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust" (Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 10, art. 11).
He also elaborated on what sorts of vices should be proscribed by human law:
Human law cannot prohibit everything contrary to virtue. Rather, it is sufficient if it prohibits those things that are destructive of civil society. Other things it allows not in the sense of giving them approbation, but by not actively punishing them. ... But divine law punishes everything that is contrary to virtue.
Unsurprisingly, Aquinas' views accord with those articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism, while teaching homosexual activity is "grave depravity" and "intrinsically disordered" (¶2357), conspicuously doesn't call for such behavior to be civilly banned. This "dog that didn't bark" is particularly meaningful because the Catechism does demand the legal prohibition of some sexual aberrations, namely pornography, stating, "Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials" (¶2354).
Not insignificant is the fact that Pope Francis responded to a note by Fr. James Martin requesting clarification of the AP interview. It speaks volumes that the pope obliged Martin with swift dispatch, while four cardinals still — after more than six years — lack a response to their dubia questioning the pope's apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Two of them even died in waiting. That said, neither dissidents like Martin nor staunch traditionalists should find anything startling in Francis' personal note (translated into English by friends of Martin's America Magazine).
In his note, Pope Francis explained, "When I said it is a sin, I was simply referring to Catholic moral teaching, which says that every sexual act outside of marriage is a sin." This is clear, but not satisfactory.
Aquinas taught, and human reason can apprehend, there are two levels of unnatural with regard to the sixth precept of the natural law: those acts not in accordance with reason (like fornication and adultery) and those acts that directly violate nature (like sodomy, bestiality, masturbation and contraception). These latter sins Aquinas refers to as the "unnatural vices," which are more grievous species of lust, since they violate human nature in a more direct and fundamental way. Indeed, the Angelic Doctor specifies, "Since by the unnatural vices man transgresses that which has been determined by nature with regard to the use of venereal actions, it follows that in this matter this sin is gravest of all" (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 154, art. 11).
Another saint, Bernardine of Siena, did not mince words on this theme:
No sin has greater power over the soul than the one of cursed sodomy, which was always detested by all those who lived according to God. ... Such passion for undue forms borders on madness. This vice disturbs the intellect, breaks an elevated and generous state of soul, drags great thoughts to petty ones, makes [men] pusillanimous and irascible, obstinate and hardened, servilely soft and incapable of anything. Furthermore, the will, being agitated by the insatiable drive for pleasure, no longer follows reason, but furor. ... Someone who lived practicing the vice of sodomy will suffer more pains in Hell than any one else, because this is the worst sin that there is.
In short, the Christian tradition has always emphasized the deviancy of sodomy over and above that of more "mundane" grave sexual sins.
The meaning of the next part of Pope Francis' letter is less than clear. The Holy Father expounded:
Of course, one must also consider the circumstances, which may decrease or eliminate fault. As you can see, I was repeating something in general. I should have said, "It is a sin, as is any sexual act outside of marriage." This is to speak of "the matter" of sin, but we know well that Catholic morality not only takes into consideration the matter, but also evaluates freedom and intention; and this, for every kind of sin.
Either this is a poor translation or the pope is mixing concepts. The doctrine of the Church is that the sources of an act's morality consist of the object chosen, the motive (or intent) and the circumstances (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1750). The degree of freedom and knowledge (not intent) a person has when making his choice dictates the degree of personal culpability imputed to him (CCC, ¶¶2352, 1793). But the act of sodomy is a moral evil regardless of the degree of moral guilt the subject accrues.
It appears Francis may have mixed up the objective and subjective elements of the act. If the pope meant to say that a person's guilt may be lessened if his freedom is diminished by let's say force of habit, that would be sound Catholic doctrine (see CCC, ¶2352). On the other hand, if he meant that homosexual acts may not be objectively evil by virtue of the person's intent or the circumstances, that would be erroneous. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed Catholic teaching that "circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act 'subjectively' good or defensible as a choice" (Veritatis Splendor, §81). Violations of the natural law, including sodomy, are intrinsically evil and "under no circumstances can they be approved" (CCC, ¶2357).
Before signing off from his letter to Martin, the pope acknowledged his AP interview could have caused confusion. "In a televised interview, where we spoke with natural and conversational language, it is understandable that there would not be such precise definitions," explained Francis.
Unfortunately, his clarification letter is also confusing and lacking in precision. So we are left with three possibilities: 1) The translation was faulty, 2) Francis is confused himself about concepts of moral theology, or 3) he deliberately and maliciously spoke incoherently to allow leeway for dissonance.
Critics of Pope Francis will see his interview and letter as a carefully crafted way to open the door for doctrinal change on homosexuality. That can never happen. Heterodox liberals, on the other hand, will see it as proof that not all sodomitic behavior is objectively sinful. This, too, is irrational and anti-Catholic.
As sons of the Church, we remember Jesus' words to Peter, which one could surmise apply to all Peter's successors: "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. ... Strengthen your brethren" (Luke 22:32). We must extend the benefit of the doubt whenever reasonably possible and avoid rash judgment towards the pope (CCC, ¶2478); at the same time, we must pray, with Christ in the garden, that the faith of His vicar on earth will not fail.
The Church for the past 45 years has been spoiled by the brilliant minds of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Let us again recall that Pope Francis may have genuine concern for the poor and the suffering, but a polished theologian he is not.