Pope Francis has pioneered a new form of papal teaching, massively influential but officially nonexistent. It is something of a shadow magisterium, but on occasion it shines a brighter light than the official magisterium.  

The latest example regards the nature of homosexuality. Juan Carlos Cruz, one of the Chilean sexual-abuse victims who spent several days with Pope Francis in April, related the following from his conversations with the Holy Father about being gay. 

“Juan Carlos, that you are gay doesn’t matter,” he said Francis told him. “God made you like this and loves you like this, and it doesn’t matter to me. The Pope loves you like this; you have to be happy with who you are.”

We do not know, of course, what Pope Francis actually said, much less what he meant by it. The Holy See Press Office, as it customarily does when private conversations with Pope Francis are reported by his interlocutors, neither confirms nor denies what was said and reiterates that private conversations have no magisterial standing. 

While they have no standing, such statements fly around the world instantly. That the Holy Father endorsed the view that a homosexual orientation is a positive good, desired and approved by God is what was reported, broadcast, posted and tweeted around the world. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes three points about homosexuality: i) homosexual persons are created and loved by God and should be fully respected in their human dignity, ii) a same-sex orientation or attraction is “disordered” and therefore cannot be a positive good desired by God, and iii) homosexual acts, like all sexual acts outside of marriage, are sinful.

Does Pope Francis disagree with that? That’s unlikely, as he has repeatedly said in regard to homosexuality that he follows the Catechism.

But it is a possibility, at least until it is demonstrated Juan Cruz is mistaken in his recollection, or that the Holy Father himself clarifies his meaning. But clarifications are not offered in such situations. Meanwhile, officially nonexistent teaching becomes legitimate news, as it seems that the Supreme Pontiff is changing Catholic doctrine. 

There have been at least five occasions in which Pope Francis has exercised this shadow magisterium to the effect of eclipsing Catholic teaching. 

·      In April 2014, a woman in Argentina claimed that Pope Francis telephoned her and told her that, despite being in an invalid marriage, she should disregard the instructions of her pastor and receive Holy Communion in another parish.

·      In January 2015, Pope Francis telephoned a transgender man and reportedly told him something similar to what Cruz reported: “God loves all his children, however they are; you are a son of God, who accepts you exactly as you are. Of course you are a son of the Church!” Pope Francis invited the man and his fiancé to visit him in Rome.

·      Pope Francis has given several interviews to journalist Eugenio Scalfari, which are neither recorded nor transcribed. The Holy See Press Office insists that Scalfari’s subsequent reporting cannot reliably be taken as the Holy Father’s words. Nevertheless, earlier this year, headlines around the world trumpeted the latest from the shadow magisterium — that hell no longer exists.

On two occasions, the Holy Father gave public answers that were ambiguous and seemed at odds with Catholic teaching.

·      In November 2015, addressing the Lutheran community in Rome, Pope Francis was asked by a Protestant woman if she could receive Holy Communion together with her Catholic husband. Absent extraordinary circumstances, that is not permitted. Pope Francis replied in a partly affirmative and partly negative way, advising the woman to “ask the Lord” and then proceed. It was widely reported that Pope Francis had given approval to intercommunion, which he had not.

·      Earlier this year, Pope Francis was asked by a tearful boy whether his late father was in heaven, despite being an atheist. Pope Francis did not answer a clear yes or no, but left the grieving boy with the impression that his father had been saved without faith. That, too, was widely reported.

In all of the above cases, the Holy Father is addressing an individual case, yet his words are reported as proposing a general norm. Absent any clarification of the norm, it is reasonably assumed by many that the norm has been changed. 

It is a common enough pastoral reality. Any good pastor has offered comforting words of an ambiguous nature to a suffering individual. A grieving daughter is told by her pastor that her recently deceased father, who abandoned her mother for another woman, really did love his children. The pastor is not proposing that the father was right to do as he did, or that he will not face judgment for that. The pastor is, in the moment, choosing to emphasize part of the truth of the situation, rather than the whole. 

That is why pastors are careful that such words are not proposed as formal teaching. It can be difficult enough in a parish, where the pastor is asked whether what he reportedly is to have said to so-and-so has changed the Church’s teaching or practice. That moment allows for a clarification. In the case of the Holy Father, there are no such moments; the whole world hears at the same time.

Indeed, those preparing the Holy Father’s visits should not have allowed the grieving child to ask the Pope about whether atheists are in heaven. It would have been awkward and out of place to examine what exactly is required for salvation. No one would find it easy to answer when the crying boy needed comforting, which the Holy Father immediately offered. He was not intending in such a moment to exercise his magisterium at all, shadow or otherwise.

It is commendable that the Holy Father has private conversations in which he offers pastoral care to those he meets. It would be better if those receiving such care would also respect the private nature of those conversations, not putting the Holy Father — and all who listen to him — in a difficult position.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.