As head of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope provides interpretive doctrine to over one billion people worldwide, conveying what they believe to be God’s divine truth. Although these doctrines may be controversial, the Church’s historic influence on global politics is inarguably strong. However, in recent years, the ambiguity created between the progressive image presented by Pope Francis and traditional doctrines on homosexuality has obscured the messages of the Church, creating an apparent neutrality and contrast with the tone of his predecessors. If the Pope’s statements are to have a truly progressive role in politics, this ambiguity must be clarified by reforms to official doctrine.
As our culture changes and contemporary attitudes shift, the doctrines of Roman Catholicism remain largely the same. The inflexibility caused by the function of the Church as a moral authority often places it in direct opposition to prevalent secular opinion, causing growing beliefs in the irrelevance of the Church to the modern world. However, Church doctrine is relevant to Catholics at both the personal and the public level, requiring the devout to vote in accordance with Church teachings. This creates conflict for individual members of the Church who find themselves faced with the application of Catholic moral doctrines to their participation in the political process.
The doctrines of the Church therefore require the clear understanding of the individual and, if followed, are reflected in the results of every election in which Catholics are represented. Pope Francis’ image as a progressive leader has ambiguous implications for doctrine, making it a potentially serious handicap to the political influence of the Church. Compared to his predecessors, Francis’ statements seem to weaken opposition to many of secular societies’ more progressive movements. In 2013 Francis said, “who am I to judge” in response to questions regarding his position on homosexuality. Such a statement’s blatant contradiction of the statements made by Francis’ predecessors give it the appearance of a more progressive outlook and seem to question the function of religion in politics.
However, despite how progressive Francis’ actions and statements may seem, they do not represent actual change in Church doctrine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church officially defines same-sex attraction as an unchosen “condition”, a “deep-seated tendency” and “trial” of faith, deeming homosexual activity a sin which can “under no circumstances be approved”. Doctrine does emphasise that the LGBT community “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided”.
Pope Francis’ statements seem to clarify the Church’s commitment to the fair treatment of the LGBT community; a belief which has technically always existed as part of Church doctrine, but has not been consistently explicit in the actions of the Church or its members. However, the Church’s definition of homosexual activity as a sin is not altered in any way by Francis’ statements. They may represent a distinct change in tone from the condemnatory remarks of his predecessors, but they simply reflect an attitude which is more neutral than progressive. Francis’ tone merely avoids the task of clearly addressing global movements for LGBT rights.
If the Roman Catholic Church wishes to act as the voice of moral reason in global politics, it cannot withhold definitive comment on issues like LGBT rights. While Pope Francis fulfils his duties as Pope with a comparatively more progressive style than his predecessors, the tone of his statements is too ambiguous and non-committal to be considered truly progressive or even truly traditional. If the church is going to provide progressive answers to questions of morality, clear doctrinal reform is necessary.