The Papal Interview, Cardinal McElroy and Father Martin

COMMENTARY: While the Holy Father’s January interview with The Associated Press yielded some encouraging words, some of his actions make it difficult to interpret his intentions.

Pope Francis addresses the media while aboard the plane from Juba to Rome on February 5, 2023 returning from the Pope's visit to Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
Pope Francis addresses the media while aboard the plane from Juba to Rome on February 5, 2023 returning from the Pope's visit to Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. (photo: Tiziana Fabi / AFP/Getty)

Pope Francis once again made headlines, owing to the interview he gave in late January to The Associated Press. Additional impetus was added to the Pope’s interview in the wake of a Jan. 24 essay in America magazine by Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego.

In that interview, the Pope voiced his disapproval against laws that criminalize homosexual actions, even as he reaffirmed that homosexual sexual acts are sinful. And in so doing, he managed to anger both his admirers and his detractors. He also had some rather choice words for the German bishops’ Synodal Way that also raised some eyebrows over just how blunt he was with his displeasure over the whole affair.

Back in the United States, the twin issues of homosexuality and synodality were also making news, thanks in large measure to the essay by Cardinal McElroy in America and some tweets by the indefatigable Father James Martin. It was a busy moment, but the upshot of all of this is that it is a kind of snapshot in a single week of the deeply confusing nature of this papacy.

The Pope says a lot of truly wonderful things in his interview with the AP. However, as many observers have noted, there is often an apparent disconnect between the Pope’s words and his actions, which makes it hard quite often to interpret the Pope’s intentions.

And his statements about homosexuality are a case in point. He has said many times that homosexual acts are sinful and that marriage is between a man and a woman — a view he repeated this past week, as well. He has also not changed the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this topic, despite repeated calls for him to do so. And yet, in his actions, this is a pope who has acted to promote people within the Church who actively work against this same teaching that he claims to uphold, which is confusing, to say the least.

For example, he promoted Father Martin to a Vatican job and has given him photo opportunities with avuncular smiles and handshakes. He has commended Father Martin’s ministry and went out of his way to respond immediately when Father Martin wanted “clarification” on the whole “homosexual sin” question since Father Martin wanted to be sure that the Pope was not calling the orientation as such sinful. And the immediacy of his response to Father Martin stands in contrast to others who have asked the Pope for clarification on this or that issue, only to be met with a baffling silence.

And the immediacy of his response to Father Martin is doubly confusing, given the fact that it is no profound secret that Father Martin would like to see changes made to the Church’s teaching on homosexual activity. Father Martin has not said this explicitly, but one can read between the lines rather easily of his many tweets and other public comments on the matter.

For example, recently, the Catholic League sent out a statement saying that Pete Buttigieg’s marriage to his “husband” was not a real marriage but a mere legal fiction. And Father Martin immediately tweeted in response that Buttigieg is truly married in the eyes of the state and his Episcopal church, and therefore he is just as married as anyone else in our society. But what was the point of Father Martin’s tweet? Why object at all to the Catholic League statement since, from an orthodox Catholic stance, it is a perfectly true statement?

In Catholic teaching, marriage is first and foremost a natural institution, grounded in the natural law, and not primarily a juridical reality. Traditionally, the role of the state was merely to give juridical weight and support to this already-existing natural institution. Therefore, Father Martin’s sharp response can only be interpreted as his way of dissenting from that view without really saying so explicitly. But it is precisely this kind of linguistic legerdemain that keeps Father Martin “safe” and, in this papacy, has garnered him promotion. And this is why it leaves many observers scratching their heads as to what direction Pope Francis really wants to take the Church on this issue.

Along these same lines, why did the Pope make Cardinal Hollerich of Luxembourg the relator general for the upcoming synod when Cardinal Hollerich has publicly called for the Church to change its teaching on homosexuality from the ground up? And why did Pope Francis send two private letters to Sister Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry in which he encouraged her ministry and told her he knows how much she has “suffered” as a result of her ministry?

Rather clearly, the Pope is here referring to her suffering caused by the magisterial actions of the Church under Pope Benedict, when both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the American bishops declared her ministry to be manifestly non-Catholic. Once again, these actions are confusing to many observers since they seem to contradict the Pope’s public statements on the sinfulness of homosexual activity.

And why did Pope Francis give a red hat to Cardinal McElroy, who also has now openly dissented from Church teaching on homosexuality and called for the moral legitimation of same-sex relationships? Indeed, in Cardinal McElroy’s recent article in America magazine makes clear, he thinks we need a radical revamping of Catholic moral theology in the area of human sexuality, where sexual relations outside of the context of marriage, both heterosexual and homosexual, would no longer be automatically considered mortal sins and therefore that the reception of Communion should be open to one and all, regardless of their sexual actions and lifestyle.

The Pope’s public comments on these issues are not in line with Cardinal McElroy’s comments. And yet he was given a red hat over many other prelates from larger sees and seems to enjoy the Pope’s favor. Perhaps his recent comments in America will change that situation. Time will tell.

The Pope also said some harsh things about the German Synodal Way, calling it “elitist” and “ideological” and that its processes are “not serious” or helpful. However, all that being said, it is certainly well within his power to simply shut it down, as he has done in Traditionis Custodes, where he has severely curtailed the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass (TLM). But in the AP interview, he rejects the option of acting more forcefully against the Germans and says that the Church must “accompany” them and help them get things right.

From where I sit, the well-financed, well-organized, episcopally promoted, elitist, ideological and secularizing German synodalists are a far bigger threat to ecclesial peace and unity than are the scattered TLM communities. Perhaps I am wrong in that assessment. And certainly here his words and actions can be reconciled on the level of prudence since reasonable people of an orthodox bent can disagree over the most prudential path forward in dealing with the Germans.

Nevertheless, it is once again confusing and makes it difficult to interpret the Pope’s intentions since at one and the same time he both sharply criticizes the Germans and yet allows their process to continue unabated from any disciplinary action from Rome — disciplinary action he has been unafraid to wield against other groups in the Church of a more traditionalist persuasion. I have little patience with the traditionalists and their penchant for scorched-earth criticisms of all things related to Vatican II. But the incongruity here between the two papal responses is confusing.

And returning to Cardinal McElroy, it cannot escape notice what he has said about the synodal process, describing it as a kind of parliamentary referendum where doctrines will be changed since the Holy Spirit is moving the Church in that direction via the synodal process of “listening.” But this runs directly counter to what Pope Francis has said the synod is about: not being a kind of debating society event where all opinions will be on the table and various doctrines up for grabs.

Pope Francis has explicitly stated that the synod is not about changing doctrines. And yet there is Cardinal McElroy with an open mic in an important U.S. Jesuit journal, opining on what the Church has gotten so grievously wrong for millennia and how the synod is going to change all that.

Of course, it is also true that other popes have made men cardinals who haven’t turned out well, such as Theodore McCarrick. But when you combine the promotion of Cardinal McElroy with similar appointments by this pope of prelates with views that mirror McElroy’s, then a pattern begins to emerge that is deeply confusing since the views of these prelates seem not to line up with the stated views of the Pope.

And so it opens the most puzzling of questions: What is Pope Francis up to? What is his end game in all of this? Because his words quite often do not match his actions; and, therefore, now 10 years into this pontificate, we have a papacy that is constitutively confusing and almost impossible to decipher.