6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
12 February 2023
Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37
Today’s gospel from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount sets out Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Mosaic law. He says he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. Whereas the Mosaic law set down rigid prescriptions of what thou shalt not do, Jesus went one step further setting down what thou shalt do, what thou shalt do to live in right relationship with others and with your God. Jesus moves us from duty to aspiration. For example:
‘You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you,
whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment;
and whoever says to his brother, “Raqa”,
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin;
and whoever says, “You fool”,
will be liable to fiery Gehenna.’
It’s not enough to hold back from killing your brother. You should not be angry with him. You should not treat him as a fool. You should live in right relationship with him.
It so happens that this past week, our church leaders have been much exercised on past church teachings in relation to homosexual persons: ‘thou shalt not…’ We are living at a time of great change in this whole realm of church teaching. Thirty years ago, Pope John Paul II tried to put a lid on the debate with his encyclical Veritatis Splendor which maintained ‘on the basis of a naturalistic understanding of the sexual act that contraception, direct sterilization, autoeroticism, pre-marital sexual relations, homosexual relations and artificial insemination were condemned as morally unacceptable.’ John Paul was very critical of those theologians who argued that ‘a morally negative evaluation of such acts fails to take into adequate consideration both man’s character as a rational and free being and the cultural conditioning of all moral norms.’ It would seem that Pope Francis is one of those theologians of whom John Paul would have been very critical.
Some of the strongest supporters of John Paul and his encyclical Veritatis Splendor were the authors of the Demos Memo circulated amongst key cardinals a year ago. We now know that Cardinal Pell was its main redactor. They are worried that the new synodal path will result in national churches being able to take their own path on questions of doctrine such as those dealt with in Veritatis Splendor. They have said:
‘If there was no Roman correction of such heresy, the Church would be reduced to a loose federation of local Churches, holding different views, probably closer to an Anglican or Protestant model, than an Orthodox model. An early priority for the next pope must be to remove and prevent such a threatening development, by requiring unity in essentials and not permitting unacceptable doctrinal differences. The morality of homosexual activity will be one such flash point.’ 
Just as Pope Francis was preparing for his trip to South Sudan and the Congo this past week, US Cardinal McElroy, one of Francis’s captain picks as a cardinal, spoke at length about the need for the Church to be more respectful and welcoming of L.G.B.T. people. He spoke of the need to ‘reform our own structures of exclusion’. He spoke of the polarisation ‘reflected in the schism so often present between the pro-life communities and justice-and-peace communities in our parishes and dioceses. It is found in the false divide between “Pope Francis Catholics” and “St. John Paul II Catholics.” It is found in the friction between Catholics who emphasize inclusion and others who perceive doctrinal infidelity in that inclusion.’
Looking to the past ten years of teaching by Pope Francis, McElroy pointed to ‘three dimensions of Catholic faith (that) support a movement toward inclusion and shared belonging’. First, the church is a field hospital. Second, reverence for conscience points to a pastoral practice of comprehensive inclusion. Third, the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a source of healing for us all.
Next day, Francis gave an interview to Associated Press declaring, ‘Being homosexual isn’t a crime.’ According to AP, he criticised ‘laws that criminalise homosexuality as “unjust,” saying God loves all his children just as they are and called on Catholic bishops who support the laws to welcome LGBTQ people into the church.’
It’s one thing for the church to declare what the law of the state should or should not criminalise; it is an altogether different thing for the church to declare what is or is not sinful. Pope Francis clarified his understanding of sinfulness when he wrote to Fr James Martin SJ saying:
‘It is not the first time that I speak of homosexuality and of homosexual persons. And I wanted to clarify that it is not a crime, in order to stress that criminalization is neither good nor just. When I said it is a sin, I was simply referring to Catholic moral teaching, which says that every sexual act outside of marriage is a sin. Of course, one must also consider the circumstances, which may decrease or eliminate fault. As you can see, I was repeating something in general. I should have said “It is a sin, as is any sexual act outside of marriage. ”This is to speak of “the matter” of sin, but we know well that Catholic morality not only takes into consideration the matter, but also evaluates freedom and intention; and this, for every kind of sin.’
On his way back from South Sudan and the Congo, Francis repeated what he had said on his return flight from Brazil back in 2013: ‘if a person with homosexual tendencies is a believer and seeks God, who am I to judge him?’ He went on to say: ‘[P]eople of homosexual tendency are children of God, God loves them, God accompanies them. It is true that some are in this state because of various unwanted situations, but to condemn such a person is a sin, to criminalise people of homosexual tendency is an injustice. I am not talking about groups, no, about people. [I]n the Catechism of the Catholic Church there is the phrase that “they should not be marginalised”. I think it’s clear on that.’
We Catholics, like the world generally, are in a situation of change when it comes to understanding, accepting and embracing LGBT persons as members of our Church and as persons deserving full respect of their human dignity. The problem is not that national synods will be developing diverse teachings and pastoral practice. That diversity will simply be a reflection of the diversity of papal teaching on the matter these last 30 years. While John Paul taught with firm clarity; Francis teaches with a gentle opaqueness. Pope Francis undoubtedly would have earned the ire of Pope John Paul II for insisting that there was a need to consider both a person’s character as a rational and free being and the cultural conditioning of all moral norms.
In times of such change and uncertainty, let’s be respectful of those with diverse views while praying for the guidance of the Spirit on our synodal path. Let’s take heart and direction from our first reading this Sunday from the Book of Sirach;
If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
if you trust in God, you too shall live;
Before you are life and death, good and evil,
whichever you choose shall be given you.
Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
the Lord is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God are on those who fear him;
he understands your every deed.
No one does he command to act unjustly,
to none does he give licence to sin.
1. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, #47, available at: http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html
2 The Memorandum on the Next Conclave Circulating Among the Cardinals, available at http://magister.blogautore.espresso.repubblica.it/2022/03/15/a-memorandum-on-the-next-conclave-is-circulating-among-the-cardinals-here-it-is/
3 Cardinal Robert W. McElroy, ‘Cardinal McElroy on “radical inclusion” for L.G.B.T. people, women and others in the Catholic Church’, America, 24 January 2023, available at https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2023/01/24/mcelroy-synodality-inclusion-244587
4 Pope Francis, Interview, Associated Press, 26 January 2023, available at https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2023/01/24/mcelroy-synodality-inclusion-244587
5 Pope Francis, Letter to Fr James Martin SJ, 27 January 2023, available at https://outreach.faith/2023/01/pope-francis-clarifies-comments-on-homosexuality-one-must-consider-the-circumstances/?_thumbnail_id=4545
6 Pope Francis, Media Conference, 5 February 2023, available at https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/speeches/2023/february/documents/20230205-voloritorno-sudsudan.html