The meaning of silence

By Fábio Grotz and
Washington Castilhos

During his visit to Brazil for World Youth Day, Pope Francis focused his preaching on concerns about social inequality and the poor. These issues prevailed over sexual morality, more frequently mobilized by his predecessor, Benedict XVI. In one week, the pope urged youths to be “revolutionary” by getting married, despite the idea that sacramental union is out of fashion nowadays. He spoke on "humanism in the economy," criticized the distance between the Catholic Church and its followers––for him the reason for its notorious loss of followers around the world––and even talked about the importance of Secularism for the peaceful coexistence between religions.

Against all expectations, Jorge Bergoglio did not take the opportunity to pass on lessons of Catholic morality, preferring to keep silent on issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and contraception. However, on his journey back to Rome, in an on-flight press conference, the Pope brought up issues like homosexuality and the role of women in the Church. Francis then said he wanted a greater role for women in the Church, but insisted that they could not become priests. About homosexuality, he reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church"s position that homosexual acts were sinful, but homosexual orientation was not. "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?," the pontiff claimed.

By saying that gay people should not be marginalized but integrated into society, the pope immediately gained support from Brazilian LGBT activists, who interpreted Bergoglio’s remarks as a sign of opening and dialogue. Many of them said they were hopeful, believing that the pope"s message is likely to contribute to the fight against discrimination. His remarks on gay people seem less judgmental than his predecessor’s position on the issue. But to what extent the Pope"s remarks on some topics and his silence on others will come to represent significant changes in the doctrine of the Catholic Church? What concrete effects will the Pope’s visit have on the way some issues are addressed in the daily ministry of the Church from now on?

For anthropologist Sérgio Carrara, professor at the Institute of Social Medicine, State University of Rio de Janeiro, it is not possible to say that there is a doctrine change in terms of sexual morality. "The Pope"s remarks on gays do not mean that there’s going to be sound changes in the way homosexuality is regarded by the doctrine. He did not deny the idea of sin that defines the relationship between same sex people. In his statement the pope’s opinion on the subject is not clear. "

Likewise, Sonia Corrêa, Co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW), argues that "strictly speaking, there were no changes from the doctrinal point of view. The idea of sin remains. What can you point out as different is the emphasis on compassion and mercy. Still, it is a kind of compassion that is tied to faith, made possible by those who seek God, in the words of the Pope,".

For a member of Catholic Diversity, who prefers to remain anonymous, the Pope’s remarks on homosexuality means an important change. "Francis uses the term "gay" and not "homosexual". So, the activist vocabulary has been incorporated by the leader of the Catholic Church. I also believe that there will be progress in doctrinal terms, but one cannot dismiss the positive welcoming tone of the pope’s speech. There is a shift in tone that allows us to foresee changes," said the member of Catholic Diversity.

The Pope"s message for gays cannot be interpreted isolated from the subsequent observation of the pontiff. Francis said the problem is not having this tendency [homosexuality], but the [gay] lobby, comparing the “gay lobby” to the lobbying of corporations, self-interested individuals, politicians, and Freemasonry. It is unclear, however, whether he refers to a lobby within the Vatican, or by LGBT advocacy groups around the world . "In any case, what is evident is the negative approach of lobbying, as if they were an unqualified version of politics, a stranger to ecclesial nature. More than that, I also see an implicit criticism of a sort of political elitism. Comparing gays to avaricious men, Freemasons, and politicians, Francis subtly draws a picture of elites," said Correa.

Despite the Vatican"s opposition to the historical perspectives of sexual and reproductive rights––such as the use of condoms and the pill, for example––in practice, the life of Catholics is not always in accordance with the Church"s moral recommendations. A Catholics for a Free Choice poll during the Pope’s visit found that the use of the contraceptive pill is accepted by 82% of young Catholics. Furthermore, 56% were in favor of same-sex marriage.

A Hierarchy of issues

Despite Bergoglio’s silence on issues like abortion, homo-conjugality and homo-parenting during his first trip abroad as pontiff, the Brazilian National Conference of Bishops (CNBB) distributed a handbook of bioethics condemning the termination of pregnancy, contraception, as well as marriage and adoption by same-sex couples.

According to Sonia Correa (SPW), the impact of the Pope"s remarks during the press conference in his return flight to Rome shows how the Vatican operates in their deployment of speech and actions. "The Pope’s speech on not judging gays goes against what is written in the manual of bioethics disseminated by the Brazilian National Conference of Bishops during his visit. Moreover, it contradicts Pope Francis’ deeds while he was Cardinal in Argentina, where he actively opposed egalitarian marriage. Recently, in his first encyclical letter he also reiterated the Vatican’s traditional views of gender and affective unions. His words are impressive in their power to obscure what is written. It is a cleverly planned media strategy. How can an interview become the ultimate truth?" said Sonia Corrêa.

The Pope also spoke on secularism, meaning, in his perspective, the peaceful coexistence between different religions, rather than the principle of separation of government institutions and State officials from religious institutions and religious dignitaries.

"According to the Pope’s speech, secularism refers to the harmonious coexistence of different doctrines. However, when it turns to secularism as a legal principle, it is possible to reflect on certain implications. The separation of church and state has been an argument mobilized by social movements to promote and ensure sexual and reproductive rights. Therefore, it is possible to deduce that this review should contribute to the dialogue with minorities," argued anthropologist Sérgio Carrara (CLAM/IMS/UERJ).

The way certain topics are introduced should also be looked at carefully. According to Carrara, the Pope has developed a focus on social inequality and poverty, leaving aside issues of sexual morality. "His speeches point to subtle changes. Although nothing new in terms of doctrine has been proposed, it is possible to assess that there is a shift in the hierarchy of issues, as if  the pope hinted that sexuality is an intimate matter. The Church, accordingly, might be signaling a shift of emphasis".

The Church member who prefers to remain anonymous believes that the silence of Francis regarding sexuality is emblematic. "Since he took over, the Pope has shown that the positions of the Church on sexual morality aren’t known well enough. Thus, he seems to refrain from resuming moral prohibitions. In doing so, he’s opening a path of dialogue," he noted.

Perhaps the pope"s silence means that Francis is not willing to repeat old Church stances. However, it does not mean that he is moving away from traditional doctrine. He is just avoiding to insist on it.