The Apology, in Context

When Pope Francis spoke of an apology to gay people, he was responding to a question about an earlier, more specific apology by Cardinal Marx in an interview with the Irish Times:

A leading cardinal has said the Catholic Church should apologise to the gay community for its scandalous and terrible treatment of them, which had not changed until “very recently”.

Speaking in Dublin, Cardinal Reinhard Marx said: “The history of homosexuals in our societies is very bad because we’ve done a lot to marginalise [them].”

As church and society “we’ve also to say ‘sorry, sorry’ ”.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx: told a conference held in Trinity College that until “very recently”, the church and society at large had been “very negative about gay people . . . It was the whole society. It was a scandal and terrible.” Photograph: Stefano Rellandini - Source Irish Times
Cardinal Reinhard Marx: told a conference held in Trinity College that until “very recently”, the church and society at large had been “very negative about gay people . . . It was the whole society. It was a scandal and terrible.” Photograph: Stefano Rellandini – Source Irish Times

Unlike Pope Francis’ apology, Cardinal Marx was clear on the need for an apology – because of its “scandalous and terrible treatment of them”, which included a lot “to marginalise them”.  His qualifier that this mistreatment had been only in the past, “until recently” is odd and will surely be disputed by many LGBT Catholics, but I pass over than, for now.

Marx’s apology in its own turn, also did not come out of nowhere. During the Family Synod in Rome last October (2015), the entire German speaking small group issued a unanimous statement, which included a very clear apology to “homosexually oriented people”, asking them for forgiveness:

At this point a confession is important for us: In a false interpretation of the attempt to uphold the doctrine of the church, it frequently happened that hard and merciless attitudes appeared in pastoral  ministry, that has brought suffering to people, especially to unmarried mothers and children born outside of marriage, for people living in premarital and non-marital cohabitation, for homosexually oriented people and for divorced and remarried people. As Bishops of our Church we are asking these people for forgiveness.

Note the admission here, that the “hard and merciless attitudes” were a result of “a false interpretation of the attempt to uphold the doctrine of the church”.  In other words – at least some kof the doctrine on homosexuality, as presented, was plain wrong. The previous year in fact, the German bishops had made a more direct statement, acknowledging that Catholic sexual doctrines must change.

Although Pope Francis’ apology was vague on just why the apology was needed, and made no admission that it could be the presentation of doctrine itself that is to blame, this is implicit in the immediate history of the prior apologies.

What can we expect now?

Some years ago, Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schonborn made the news, when he suggested that it was time for the Church to stop obsessing over homosexual genital acts, and instead focus on the quality of the relationships. At the time, that seemed radical, but his sentiment was soon taken up by a succession of his colleagues, leading to a steadily increasing list of bishops, of increasing seniority, expressing support for legal recognition of same-sex blessings. More recently, a handful of bishops have gone even further, expressing support for church blessings of same-sex unions. It seems to be characteristic of Catholic bishops, that in general, they are most reluctant to go out on a limb and express an opinion that seems to be out of line with traditional Catholic teaching – even when it is obvious to them, that the tradition is mistaken, and must change. However, when one bishop breaks cover and says what needs to be said, others soon follow.  The same will apply with these apologies to gay people.

Even before the recent apologies by Cardinal Marx and Pope Francis, others had followed the example of the German speaking group at the Family Synod. On their return after the synod, Bishop Doyle of Northampton made a very similar apology to gay Catholics, and Westiminster’s Cardinal Vincent Nichols issued a more general, more cautiously worded apology to “all the church had driven away”.

Since the papal apologies, there’s been at least one further apology, from San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, reported at America magazine.  Just as Cardinal Schonborn’s initial limited remarks on paying attention to the quality of gay relationships soon led to other bishops’ going further, endorsing legal recognition for civil unions, Bishop McElroy’s words went rather further than Pope Francis, or Cardinal Marx, proposing some very specific steps that need to be taken:

A practical step toward the apology by the pope, Bishop McElroy thought, might be a re-evaluation of the language the church uses in even talking about L.G.B.T. Catholics. “We are not talking about some group or person who is the ‘other,’ he said. “It has to be language that is inclusive, embracing, it has to be pastoral.”

While The Catechism of the Catholic Church on homosexuality and other teaching on pastoral care for L.G.B.T. Catholics deplores violence or unjust discrimination against people who are gay or lesbian, it also describes homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered.”

Bishop McElroy thinks that phrasing ought to be carefully reconsidered. “The word ‘disordered’ to most people is a psychological term,” he explains. “In Catholic moral theology it is a philosophical term that is automatically misunderstood in our society as a psychological judgment.” He thought the term evidence of “very destructive language that I think we should not use pastorally.”

Another relatively easy step for most dioceses to take by way of institutional apology would be “to seek to collaborate with those in society who are working to banish discrimination and violence leveled against people because of their sexual orientation.”

There is a lot that is missing from Pope Francis’ apology that needs to be said – but is implied from the context of the immediately prior apologies that lay behind it, and on which he was commenting. Other bishops will now begin to speak up too, just as Bishop McElroy has done – and in time, they too will flesh out what was missing in the papal apology.

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