EDITOR’S NOTE: R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also commented on this subject in a recent essay and podcast, “Who Am I to Judge? The Pope, the Press and the Predicament“ and the Aug. 1 edition of The Briefing.
Pope Francis’ comment that he will not “judge” homosexuals does not signal a change in Roman catholic teaching about sexual morality but reflects the pope’s desire to portray the Roman Catholic Church as loving toward everyone, according to Southern Seminary’s Gregg Allison.
“I think some, perhaps many people, both outside and inside the Catholic church, are hopeful that the pope’s comments about homosexuality signal a change in the church’s view of and policy toward homosexuality, but I have strong doubts that this is the case,” said Allison, professor of Christian theology and author of the forthcoming book Intrigue and Critique: An Evangelical Assessment of Roman Catholic Theology and Practice (Crossway, 2014).
The pope offered his comments July 29, during a wide-ranging press conference aboard a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome. He made “off-the-cuff remarks that express his rightful compassion toward all people, those engaged in homosexuality included,” Allison said. “Like his similar remarks a couple of months ago about atheists and good works, the pope’s comments are not official teaching on this issue.”
Francis’ commented on an alleged “gay lobby” in the Roman Catholic Church with inordinate influence. He said a gay lobby is bad but distinguished between the gay lobby and homosexual individuals, telling reporters, “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?”
That statement led major media outlets to speculate that Francis may be shifting the church’s ethical teaching. But Allison said such claims show a misunderstanding of Catholic theology.
“The pope’s comments do not represent any official change in theological direction,” he said. “They may signal the fact that he will not be a pope who follows the path of his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in terms of the latter’s projection of a more conservative, closed face on the Roman Catholic Church. The current pope seems to embrace everyone and wants to demonstrate to the world that the Catholic Roman Church embraces everyone.
“But this should not be taken to mean that Pope Francis is going to reform the church in terms of a new social or theological agenda when it comes to homosexuality, abortion, contraception, women as priests, married priests and the like. The Roman Catholic Church in general, and its pope in particular, does not — I would add cannot — function in that way.”
The official teaching of Roman Catholicism, articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that some acts are intrinsically disordered, including homosexual activity. Such acts are “always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil,” according to the catechism.
“Accordingly,” Allison said of Catholic teaching, “under no circumstances — for example, the claim to be acting out of love, or to be reciprocating an expression of love — is homosexual activity a moral act. It is always illicit.”
Another highlight of Francis’ trip to Brazil was his emphasis on the need for Catholics to evangelize more or risk losing the church’s members. According to census data, the number of Catholics in Brazil dropped from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million in 2010, with the nation’s percentage of Catholics falling from 74 percent to 65 percent. During the same period, the percentage of Protestants and Pentecostals soared from 15 percent to 22 percent.
“Jesus is calling on you to be a disciple with a mission,” Francis told a crowd of 3 million in Rio de Janeiro on July 28. He added, “Dear young people, Jesus Christ is counting on you; the church is counting on you; the pope is counting on you.”
Francis is well aware of Protestantism’s recent success in Latin America as a native of Argentina, Allison said.
“This pope knows first-hand the immense impact of evangelical churches on the Catholic populations of South America, and he will be a leader for the Roman Catholic Church who challenges it to mirror and even reproduce the evangelistic fervor, community building, prayer, enthusiastic worship and the like of evangelicals,” Allison said. “We should expect a more aggressive Roman Catholic Church to follow the lead of this pope in reaching out to connect with people, both Catholic and non-Catholics.”
Allison cautioned evangelicals not to assume they know what the pope means when he talks about evangelism.
“Southern Baptists should … learn that many similar terms that we and Catholics use — for example, evangelization, receiving/believing in Christ, the gospel, faith, baptism — mean something very different to us than they mean to Catholics,” he said.
Evangelicals who minister among Catholic populations must make sure that people who seem to embrace their preaching are truly trusting in Christ alone for salvation, according to Allison.
“If we miss this important point … we are going to engage in ministry, share the gospel and plant churches that are not properly contextualized,” he said. “They may garner explosive numbers, but they will not be gospel-centered churches as we might think.”
David Roach is a correspondent for Southern Seminary.