Is Pope Francis Backpedaling on Gays?

The Vatican’s cheery-sounding ‘complementarity’ symposium’ is really an attack on sex outside of marriage—gay sex, single sex, divorced sex, and all 50 shades of grey in between.

11.19.14 12:00 AM ET

Pope Francis is not Jesus Christ. Or even Martin Luther.

He may well transform the Catholic Church, and has already gained unprecedented popularity as the reformer we’ve all been waiting for. But as events this week confirm, he is not omnipotent, and does not intend to change fundamental Catholic doctrine—if he even could.

The event in question is “The Complementarity of Man and Woman: An International Colloquium,” an interreligious symposium presented by some of the Vatican’s most conservative voices. To understand the significance of Pope Francis’s remarks at this bizarre event, it’s necessary to back up a bit.

You may have noticed that roughly 100 percent of higher animals reproduce sexually, requiring a male and female partner to do so. This is the core of “complementarity,” and it would not seem to require an international colloquium to explain.

Complementarity as conservative Catholics use the term, however, is more than biology. It stands for the proposition that the biological basis of procreation should also be the sole organizing principle of society. Only mating pairs constitute a family, and any configuration that is not a mating pair—divorced people, gay people, single people—are not to be legitimized. Otherwise, society will collapse.

I am not exaggerating this position.

Complementarity also means, of course, than men and women are fundamentally different. In an earlier era, this was obvious. Men rule, women serve; men fight, women nurture. Today’s complementarians have to be more subtle—Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus—but the basic principle remains. Just like you need a sperm and an egg to make a baby, so you need a boy and a girl to create a harmonious pair.

The idea of complementarity is an essential part of Natural Law, the Catholic Church’s quasi-secular-but-not-really philosophy that everything in the world has its “natural” role, which is good, and its “unnatural” perversions, which are bad.

Sex is not for fun; sex is for procreation. Food is not for fun; food is for nourishment. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas, the most important Catholic Natural Law thinker, called any “misuse” of sensual pleasures luxuria—not just luxury in the contemporary sense, but decadent luxury, pleasure beyond purpose. Evil.

All of this matters, of course, because the Catholic Church is a multi-billion dollar international organization with 1.2 billion adherents (40 percent from Latin America, like Pope Francis). The Economist has calculated that it spends $170 billion annually in the United States alone.

A great deal of that money goes to imposing its view of Natural Law on the rest of us, spending billions to restrict abortion and contraception, and fight any recognition of same-sex (“unnatural”) couples.

Now, wasn’t Pope Francis going to change all that?

No. Never.

It was revolutionary when Pope Francis said “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay people. But it was revolutionary in a specific, limited way. What he meant was that he personally, and by extension all Christians, should not be judgmental. The Church should welcome everyone— gays, divorcees, criminals—because that is what Christ did. And, who knows, eventually they will straighten out.

I’m being a bit dismissive here, but this really is a significant evolution. I know many gay people who were thrown out of their churches, and those of us who were around in the 1980s remember how Cardinal John O’Connor and others blamed gays for AIDS and refused to help New Yorkers dying from the plague.

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But an evolution in tone is not a change in doctrine. Essentially, Pope Francis is urging Christians to “love the sinner, but hate the sin.”

Which brings us back to this week’s colloquium, presented by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—originally known (until 1908) as the “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.” Yes, that Inquisition.

The CDF has, for five centuries, been a bastion of Catholic conservatism, and today is no exception. It was headed for 20 years by Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who produced such gems as labeling gay people “intrinsically disordered.” Now its prefect is Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who led the opposition to any softening of the church’s stance against divorcees at last month’s synod of bishops, and who has gone after American nuns for being too feminist and spending too much time fighting poverty instead of opposing gay marriage. And let’s not even talk about gay people.

So, while the Colloquium is presented as a neutral, and interreligious, conference on the beauty of traditional marriage, its significance is anything but anodyne. Beyond the snappy website and mission to “examine and propose anew the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman, in order to support and reinvigorate marriage and family life for the flourishing of human society,” its real-world impact would be to deny secular legal status to anyone who does not fit is conception of “complementarity.”

Just look at the list of speakers, a who’s who of theological conservatives from a breadth of Western religious traditions. There’s Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, which recently decided that transgender people don’t exist, and which expelled a church whose minister said he no longer believes homosexuality to be a sin—after his own son came out as gay. There’s Nigerian Anglican Primate Nicholas Okoh, who called the ‘homosexual agenda’ an “evil wind blowing across the Western world,” and who supports Nigeria’s vicious new anti-gay laws. And of course there’s megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who has strenuously denied helping to bring about Uganda’s anti-gay law, but whose fingerprints are all over it.

As in Jerusalem, where opposition to a gay pride march united Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim conservatives, “complementarity” has the power to bring people together.

But don’t be misled. “Complementarity,” like “family values,” “religious liberty,” and “traditional marriage” is a term defined by what it opposes—non-procreative sex, same-sex unions, contraception, and usually (though not always) feminism.

Where is Pope Francis in all of this?

First, in his opening remarks yesterday, the pontiff towed a much more conservative line than his legion of new fans might expect. “The complementarity of man and woman,” he said:

is a root of marriage and family… We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment. This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.”

That is not exactly a message of liberation, and it confirms the speculation of some Vatican-watchers that the whole colloquium is a way for the pope to placate the conservative base that has begun (unthinkably) to rebel against him.

But at the same time, the pope didn’t quite go all the way either. Notice he said that complementarity is “a root” of family, not “the root.” And he also said things like

In these days, as you embark on a reflection on the beauty of complementarity between man and woman in marriage, I urge you to lift up yet another truth about marriage: that permanent commitment to solidarity, fidelity and fruitful love responds to the deepest longings of the human heart. I urge you to bear in mind especially the young people, who represent our future

So when the pope says to a room of conservatives:

Do not fall into the trap of being swayed by political notion. Family is an anthropological fact—a socially and culturally related fact. We cannot qualify it based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history. We can’t think of conservative or progressive notions. Family is a family.

What does he mean, exactly? Does he mean that the non-hetero-dyad family is a “political notion”? Or is he saying that family is an “anthropological fact,” i.e., one determined not by outdated “ideological notions” but by the lived realities of people as they are? Are conservative ideologues, as one of the Pope’s close advisors said earlier this year, “people who don’t understand reality”? Given the audience—a room full of conservatives—what does it mean to say “We can’t think of conservative or progressive notions”?

We can only speculate as to the intentions behind these ambiguous words. Perhaps the Pope is telling his conservative base what they don’t want to hear, in the guise of telling them what they do. Perhaps, as one cardinal recently complained, the chaos is the plan. Or perhaps Pope Francis is not the pope of progressives’ fantasies after all.

Even if he is, though, the pope may be infallible, but he is not omnipotent. As this week’s gathering shows, there are powerful conservative forces within the Catholic Church and beyond it. And for every encomium to the harmonious, procreative union of male and female, there is a trampling of everyone else.