The day after Pope Francis returned to Rome from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, an event which saw millions of young people gather on Copacabana beach for Mass and prayer, the top story from secular news outlets across the globe featured a picture of Pope Francis beside the headline: "Who am I to judge gay people?"
The headline was derived from a statement made by the Holy Father during a press briefing held on the papal plane en route to Rome following the WYD celebrations. In addition to speaking about those with same-sex attraction, Pope Francis also answered questions about the Vatican Bank, women priests, and his reflections on his visit to Brazil.
Media outlets have especially honed in on the following words: "If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?... these persons must never be marginalized and they must be integrated into society."
Some advocates of gay rights and same-sex "marriage" have hailed these words – or rather, this selected quote – seeing it as a sign that Pope Francis is leading the way for the Catholic Church to change its teaching on the homosexual lifestyle. They also cite it as an improvement over the teachings of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who was deemed more "judgmental" in matters pertaining to homosexuality.
For reasons that are open to interpretation, the secular media has been selectively "positive" in its representations of Pope Francis, in the same way it was often selectively negative about Pope Benedict, his other predecessors, and about Catholic teaching in general. This is evidenced by the relative media silence toward Pope Francis' statement regarding women priests, made at the same press conference, in which he firmly states that the Church's position on the issue was unchangeable. Meanwhile, when Pope Francis calls for those with same-sex attraction to be "integrated into society" rather than judged and marginalized, he is seen as a herald of change to Catholic doctrine, when in fact he is merely pointing out what his predecessors, and the Church, have been saying all along.
"The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible," reads the passage of the catechism of the Catholic Church referenced by Pope Francis during the press briefing. "They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition."
Regardless of the secular media's somewhat awkward interpretation of Pope Francis' call to "not judge gay people," they have inadvertently opened the way for believers and non-believers alike to take a closer look at what the Church teaches on the matter. Whether this will cause a change of heart for those actively promoting the homosexual lifestyle remains to be seen. But for those committed to the defense of traditional marriage, at a time when same-sex "marriage" is becoming legal in one country after the other, a revisiting of tactics may be in order, for which the Holy Father's words serve as a guide. Are we listening to the gay community? Do we answer their questions? Are we seeking dialogue, or are we merely pontificating? Is our language respectful? Do we recognize that many have faced genuine persecution, driving them to seek refuge in the gay community? Do we acknowledge that some of this persecution has been committed in the name of faith? Is Christian charity driving us to fight for their benefit, as well as for the benefit of society, or are we merely fighting for an agenda?
This is not to dismiss the real persecution suffered by those heroically fighting in defense of traditional marriage. Yet in the fight to preserve the institution of marriage against efforts of the gay community to dismantle it, there is the danger of becoming lost in the polemics. In the end, it is not enough to win the debate; what is important is that we change hearts as well as minds.
*The translation courtesy of: Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, CEO of Canada's Salt and Light Catholic Television Network and assistant to Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ for English language