As a Catholic myself, I wish that all people — non-Catholics, non-believers, and (perhaps especially) my fellow Catholics — would pay closer attention to the teachings and reflections of the Holy Father. Regardless of whether one shares the Catholic view that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, chosen through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to serve as successor to Saint Peter and head of the universal Church, he is indisputably a man of deep theological learning, intense prayerfulness, and genuine good will who has given his life to the service of God.
As such, his reflections and perspectives on spiritual matters merit consideration and respect, if not necessarily universal assent. Moreover, there is no other single figure in global Christianity — the world’s largest religion — that has anywhere near the platform, influence, and tangible institutional authority that the Pope does. Thus, as a practical matter, his views are of tremendous importance for the direction of the faith.
Given all of this, it is especially important for members of the media to report the Holy Father’s comments accurately and in their appropriate theological context. A headline that screams “POPE SAYS GAY PRIESTS OK” is profoundly misleading, whether intentionally or otherwise. It suggests that the Pope gave his blessing to priests who actually have sexual relations with other men, which of course he did not.
Rather, he reiterated long-standing Church teaching that simple attraction to those of the same sex is not inherently sinful, just as attraction to a woman who is not one’s wife is not sinful; what matters is whether or not one acts on these temptations. Any man called to the priesthood is expected to be chaste; thus, the Holy Father seemed to suggest, the nature of the sexual attractions that he must put aside is not especially important. This is an important point, but it hardly reflects a shift in the Church’s magisterial teaching on human sexuality. It is crucial, when we listen to the statements of the Pope (or anyone else, for that matter) that we hear what they have actually said, not what we wish they had said (or what we want others to believe they have said).
Finally, it is important for all of us — Catholic or otherwise — to understand that not all Papal statements are equivalent. In very rare instances, when the Pope speaks formally in his role as Vicar of Christ on questions of doctrine (what are called “ex cathedra” pronouncements), Catholic teaching holds that he is infallible.
At other times, the Pope’s considered and careful writings on issues of faith and morals contribute to the Magisterium, or the body of Church teaching, developed and elucidated over time by Popes, Councils, and theologians, that is binding on all Catholics. At other times–especially in off-the-cuff interviews — the Holy Father is simply expressing his opinion or impression on a question, something that the faithful should respect, but with which we are not bound to agree.
For example, Pope Benedict believed that for men with “deeply” homosexual inclinations, the communal life with other men in the seminary and the rectory would present such a temptation to impurity that they ought not pursue the priesthood. Pope Francis appears to hold a different view, that same sex attraction per se ought not be a barrier to a priestly vocation. Neither of these views is magisterial or indisputable. They are appropriate subjects for prayerful, respectful discussion and debate within the Church.