“I know I’m somebody, ’cause God don’t make no junk.”
The quote, replicated on thousands of T-shirts and bumper stickers, is from the memoir of the jazz singer Ethel Waters. It’s been a powerful, if pat, source of inspiration for all those who have been deemed to be nobody: African-American women like Waters, gay men like me.
And now, in contradiction to official Catholic dogma, Pope Francis is reported to have said something similar to Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean gay man who was a victim of clerical sexual abuse 30 years ago and has become one of Chile’s leading spokesmen for abuse survivors.
“You have to be happy with who you are,” Cruz said the pope told him after he disclosed that he was gay. “God made you this way and loves you this way, and the pope loves you this way.”
This may not seem like a revolutionary statement, and indeed, there is still a long way to go before the Catholic Church affirms the lives of lesbians and gays. It has already been disclaimed by Vatican authorities, who point out that it was a private statement made in the context of pastoral counseling, not a formal statement of creed.
But the more you know about what the pope said, the more powerful his statement becomes.
First, it comes in the context of the pontiff’s apologies for decades of clerical abuse and cover-ups, specifically in Chile, where he had previously defended the church hierarchy and shamed longtime victims of abuse. Cruz, in particular, was advised not to come forward because the church might blame him (after all, he was gay; he must have wanted to be abused) and expose his life to his family.
This wasn’t just a kind statement made to a gay person; it was encouragement to every gay victim of priestly abuse to come forward as Cruz has done.
Second, the remark must be situated in the context of Catholic theology on homosexuality: namely, that it is “intrinsically disordered.”
That phrase, based on church teachings from 1975 and 1986 (the latter written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI), is now part of the official Catholic catechism, which states:
Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
Notice how the catechism includes both acts (“relations”) and orientation (“sexual attraction”) within its definition of “homosexuality.” That’s because, under natural law, the doctrine that moral law is as much a part of the universe as, for example, the laws of physics, the purpose of sex is procreation. That’s its place in the moral order. Non-procreative sex is thus disordered. Indeed, the same term is used four paragraphs earlier to describe masturbation.
But the catechism leaves dangling the question of where sexual orientation comes from. Homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” but what about the orientation itself?
Well, the reasoning goes, since God couldn’t possibly create something that is intrinsically disordered, the “disorder” is in the gay person’s head. He’s sick, perverted, disordered. God don’t make no junk. So it must be your fault.
That’s why, in 1986, Ratzinger—whose unprecedented resignation from the papacy was clouded by rumors, now confirmed, about a “gay mafia” inside the Vatican—upped the ante by saying that experiencing same-sex attraction is no excuse for having sex. All people, Ratzinger wrote, are free to make moral choices, even if they have an inclination toward an immoral one—an inclination whose origins are “unexplained.”
Thus, the only option for a gay Catholic is celibacy—and “joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross.” Your suffering will bring you closer to Christ.
Pope Francis’ message, albeit unofficial, could not be more different. “Be happy with who you are,” he is reported to have said; not, be like Christ and suffer. “God made you this way,” which means your desires cannot be contrary to God’s plan for the universe. On the contrary, they must be part of it.
Finally, there is the political context.
Pope Francis’ statement is yet another shot across the bow of Catholic traditionalists, already aghast at his earlier statement of “who am I to judge” a gay person, and his many statements that unfettered capitalism is evil. Such utterances have not endeared him to conservative Catholics like Steve Bannon, who has met with Vatican traditionalists opposed to the pope, or Paul Ryan, who fired (and then rehired) the chaplain of the House of Representatives for daring to pray that the tax code will have “benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”
Now, Pope Francis’ word is not law. Nothing has changed in Catholic teaching. Homosexuality is still “intrinsically disordered.” There are to be no openly gay priests, no official gay Catholic organizations, certainly no gay marriage. Again, there’s a wide gap between what Pope Francis said and what LGBT advocates demand.
But “God made you this way” is more than “who am I to judge.” It’s an affirmation, not a negation. And whatever its doctrinal impact, it has already moved many gay Catholics to tears. And answered their prayers.