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Pope Francis, Homosexuality, and the Love of God
A furor has erupted recently over a statement Pope Francis reportedly made about homosexuality during a private conversation with a victim of Catholic clerical sexual abuse in Latin America:
Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter. God made you like this and loves you like this and I don’t care. The pope loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are.
The reactions in society at large have been predictable: cautious optimism among those who believe that LGBTQ behavior is essentially compatible with Christianity (although some still insist that the Pope has not gone far enough), and horror and disbelief among those who once looked to the Catholic church as a bastion of traditional morality. The Vatican neither confirms nor denies the authenticity of the statement.
How are we, as Orthodox Christians, to look upon what the Pope reportedly said? On which side of this ever-widening societal chasm does the Church stand?
In order to answer this very important question, it is first necessary to understand that the Pope’s statement actually contains multiple assertions, which can be summarized as follows:
Being gay “does not matter” with regard to one’s relationship with God and the church.
God makes people gay.
Gay people should be happy with who they are.
God loves gay people just as they are, and Christians should too.
Does Being Gay Matter?
Of all the phrases in the Pope’s statement, the first has received perhaps the least attention. Most media reports have focused either on the idea that God makes people gay, or else that God loves people who are gay. But the idea that being gay is totally irrelevant to the spiritual life is, of all four propositions, actually the one that is the furthest from Orthodox Christianity.
It is clear from the witness of the Scriptures, as well as thousands of years of unbroken Tradition, that homosexual behavior is forbidden by God. There is no serious way to avoid this fact. I will hasten to add that we cannot, especially in the context of our modern culture, simply leave it at that, with no further word nor explanation. God does not forbid things in order to tyrannize us, and “His commandments are not grievous.” Nor are they arbitrary. On the contrary, His commandments are, without exception, given purely out of divine love and compassion. His commandments are given in order to heal us, not in order to condemn us.
But the idea that His commandments are given about things that simply do not matter is perhaps the most subversive thing that the Pope could possibly have said about anything at all.
It is possible that Francis meant something else by his statement. Perhaps he meant only that being gay is not something that prevents Juan Carlos from being loved by God or by the Pope. But given the massive and widespread confusion surrounding this issue, especially within the Catholic church, the Pope would do well to clarify what he actually meant. Given his track record, however, I’m not holding my breath for any such clarification to come forth.
Does God Make People Gay?
In the Epistle of St. James, we read the following words:
Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.
If this is true, then given the fact that homosexual behavior is clearly forbidden by God, it is impossible to state that God “makes people gay.”
But again, we cannot simply leave it at that. There is also what is, in technical theological terms, sometimes called the “permissive will” of God. This means that sometimes, as in the case of the Righteous Job, God allows temptations to come upon His children though He Himself does not send them. This is possible because of the great and terrible gift which God has given to us: free will. He allows us to make our own choices, and our choices can often result in tragedy. And because we are not (as we sometimes like to think) atomistic individuals totally disconnected from the universe and from one another, our choices and our tragedies all too often spill over into the lives of others. Even when they have done nothing to deserve it.
And yet God allows these temptations not only out of respect for our freedom, but also because in His wisdom He sees that such temptations have the possibility to work out for our own good. They can be the instruments of our salvation. And He Himself suffered such temptations for our own good as well: there is no more powerful example of this than the Cross. The worst crime that humanity ever committed was precisely the event that brought to us salvation. The Father did not crucify His Son. But He allowed it to come to pass in order to show us His love.
It is in this context that we must look at the question of homosexual proclivities. God does not force these desires upon anyone, but because of the shattered world which we as a race have chosen, sinful desires sometimes arise in our hearts. We, as individuals, cannot be blamed for the mere fact of their arising, but at the same time we are accountable for what we choose to do with them. And though these desires are sinful, nevertheless they are allowed by God because they can lead to our salvation. They are crosses in our lives which we are commanded to take up.
Every sinful thought, every impure desire, and every evil fantasy are crosses which we must take up and bear on the path to the Kingdom of God. But if, by the grace of God, we bear our crosses patiently and resist to the end, we will be welcomed as martyrs into Paradise.
Should Gay People Be Happy With Who They Are?
We cannot blame God for our crosses, but neither should we pretend that they are natural, normal, or praiseworthy. They are products of the Fall, the inheritance of the sins of our forebears as well as the consequences of our own sinful choices. But though we can therefore never be “happy” about them, we can nevertheless be at peace with our crosses. That peace comes from the knowledge that, no matter their origin, they have been allowed by the loving providence of a good and merciful God.
But we must never allow ourselves to be tricked into believing that they are part of our very selves. We must make no mistake: our crosses are nothing other than the meeting points between a fallen world and the love of God. To disregard either of these two great facts of our existence is to fundamentally misunderstand the world, ourselves, and God Himself.
The Love of God
This brings us to the final and most important question: does God love gay people, just as they are? The answer is an absolute and unequivocal “yes.” And we ourselves, insofar as we are Christians, are called upon to share in this divine and all-embracing love.
To love someone does not mean to pretend that they are perfect, nor does it mean to believe that every choice that they make is good. Sometimes it means telling them hard things that they do not want to hear, and that we do not want to say.
But the idea that God will not love us until and unless we are perfect is the one of the greatest traps into which mankind has ever fallen. It is the reason why Adam and Eve hid from the footsteps of God in Eden. And the Holy Fathers tell us that this was the real Fall of Man: not when we ate the Fruit, but when we ran from God and made excuses, rather than coming to Him in humility and repentance. If only we had not hidden from Him, if only we had entrusted ourselves to His mercy, we would all still be in Paradise today.
It is this Fall that we fight more than any other when we come to the Holy Mystery of Confession. More important than any of the individual sins we have committed is the act of coming into the presence of God, naked and without excuse, relying only on His mercy, His love, and His forgiveness.
And as soon as we do so, we realize that we have had these things all along. Even when we were at our worst, the love of God for us was undimmed and unchanged. It only remained for us to become willing to receive it.