In Pope Francis, an Opportunity to Re-Tune Catholic Doctrine

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 14, 2013

Editor's note: be warned that this essay is not about Hamilton or urban revitalization. I just needed to get it off my chest.

I am what many practicing Catholics would call a lapsed Catholic, and what many lapsed Catholics would call a recovering Catholic. But while I no longer feel able to be at home in the Church, it remains an integral part of my background and I remain interested in its developments.

The Church has been in a state of turmoil and struggle for several years, with the most visible component being the long-running, wide-ranging children sexual abuse catastrophe.

It's hard to avoid concluding that this systemic institutional failing is a symptom of a broader malaise: a reflex for secrecy and self-preservation; a stubborn resistance to change in the face of overwhelming evidence; and a sheer derangement with respect to human sexuality.

So I've been paying attention to the appointment of the new Pope, in the hopes that the Papal Conclave would have the courage and wisdom to appoint a change agent - someone who can guide, and sometimes prod, the Church to make the institutional and doctrinal changes that are overdue.

Pope Francis

Of course it's far too early to know whether Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, will be that agent, or will continue to double down on the status quo.

Indeed, his task has two distinct spurs: to bring the operation of the Church back in line with its values; and also to re-tune those values in the face of overwhelming evidence. It remains to be seen which, if either, of these challenges he will take on, but for the purpose of this musing I would like to focus on the latter.

To be sure, Bergoglio's outspokenness on poverty, personal humility and simple, unadorned lifestyle are refreshing in the face of a Vatican grown obscenely extravagant and grandiose. And hey, he gets bonus points for using public transit. We can hope that he will find ways to overcome the inertia of opulence and distribute the Church's vast wealth more equitably.

His history of interactions with Argentina's former dictatorship will provide grist for various analytical mills, but it seems clear that he strove for justice in his own reserved, unflashy way.

Of more concern is the Pope's stated positions on contraception and homosexuality. I realize that I am using these issues as litmus tests, but for me they're deal-breakers. As always, YMMV.


In recent years, Bergoglio has opposed the distribution of condoms in Argentina and spoken out against their use. This is, of course, entirely in keepting with the Catholic Church's position on contraception - but that position is wrong-headed and wrong-hearted.

Joseph Ratzinger, the recently-abdicated Pope Benedict XVI, provoked controversy in 2009 when he claimed that the distribution of condoms in Africa actually increases the incidence of HIV infection and AIDS.

This is nonsense, as health researchers and care organizations immediately pointed out, but it was hardly the first time the Church spread misinformation about condoms. In 2003, the Vatican claimed against all scientific evidence that HIV can pass through condoms, a claim repeated by local dioceses in high-risk African communities.

The World Health Organization condemned the message, pointing out that telling people condoms don't work undermines efforts to get more people wearing condoms - efforts that actually have succeeded worldwide in reducing the spread of HIV.

It should go without saying that any commitment to improve the conditions of the world's poorest, most vulnerable people must allow itself to be informed by the evidence of what actually works; but the Church's longstanding moral opposition to condoms continues to undercut its own efforts at social justice.

Bigger Picture

This is a particularly frustrating line in the sand for the Church to draw. The Bible itself is silent on contraception, and the Church derives its position from the principle that the main purpose of sex is procreation, so anything that disconnects sex from procreation is inherently wrong.

Defenders of this position will often refer to the Genesis story of Onan, who practiced coitus interruptus when having sex with his dead brother's widow because wanted their child to be his heir, not his brother's.

God's anger with Onan for "spilling his seed" instead of giving his dead brother an heir somehow morphed into the Catholic Church's opposition to any form of seed-spilling, including both masturbation and birth control. (It's also the inspiration for Monty Python's famous Every Sperm is Sacred.)

Tragically, the Church's position on condom use misses the bigger picture - the far greater harm that results from a lack of access to condoms. (Without condoms, for example, a married couple cannot safely have intercourse if one member is HIV positive. So much for the sacredness of human sexuality.)

It would not be difficult for the Church to retain its general stance but allow that the judicious use of condoms prevents a far greater harm. Indeed, the Gospels are replete with stories of Jesus chastising his church leaders for enforcing the rules at the cost of love and compassion (about which more below).

Yet the Church remains intractable. This is exactly the kind of stultifying retrenchment that flows out of a dysfunctional institutional culture of insularity and stagnation - a culture the new Pope needs to address.

Will Pope Francis dig in and perpetuate the Church's support for this harmful doctrine, or will he be moved by his overarching concern for the poor to guide the Church to a more humane position?


In his vocal opposition to the Argentine government's 2010 passage of a law to allow same-sex marriage, Bergoglio argued that the legislation represents a plot by the "the father of lies" to "confuse and deceive the children of God".

Yes, he actually called same sex marriage Satan's plan to corrupt humanity.

He also said that allowing gay couples to adopt children constitutes discrimination against those children, who will be "deprived of their human development" in the absence of a mother and a father.

But the Church's position on homosexuality is the moral equivalent of geocentrism. There is simply no evidence whatsoever from biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology or any other life science to support the Church's position that homosexual relations are "intrinsically disordered" or "contrary to the natural law" or "do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity."

It makes me cringe even to have to write this in the 21st century, but homosexuals are every bit as fully capable of good mental health, healthy emotional and physical relationships, loving family life and responsible parenting as heterosexuals.

Sexual orientation is orthogonal to these human values and irrelevant to their outcomes, and the Church needs to come to terms with this.

Homosexuality and Bible Literalism

While it's true that the Bible condemns homosexuality, Catholic Canon is not literalist with respect to Scripture (nor, indeed, is any other Christrian religion, including those that consider themselves to be literalist).

For example, the Church accepts the scientific assessment that the earth is 4.5 billion years old and revolves around the sun, and that life has evolved through a proces of natural selection. As such, it is acceptable for Catholics to regard the Genesis creation stories as allegories to explain the origins of human morality rather than literal accounts in a scientific sense.

Similarly, the Church does not enforce the myriad directives and prohibitions in the Book of Leviticus, a list that includes bans on wearing clothes made from mixed fibres, eating pork and shellfish, touching a menstruating woman (or anything she has touched), planting more than one crop on the same field, shaving the corners of one's beard, or letting different kinds of cattle commingle.

Leviticus orders the death penalty for all parties to the following sins: adultery, cursing one's parents, wizardry, blasphemy, a man having sex with his brother's wife, a man having sex with his father's wife, a man having sex with his daughter-in-law, a man marrying both a woman and her mother, a man or woman having sex with an animal (even the animal has to be put to death), and of course a man having sex with another man. (And that is not even to begin to mention the hundreds of occasions for which a sacrifice of grain or livestock is required.)

There is a lively debate among thelogians over the extent to which the New Testament frees Christians from having to obey the minutiae of the Old Testament (Matthew 15:11 comes to mind), but virtually all Christians hand-wave their way out of huge swathes of the Bible - and thank goodness, because our society would be an unfathomably more horrific place if such rules were actually followed and enforced.

The vast majority of Catholics are already ahead of their Church on equality for homosexuals. It's time for the Church to undertake one of its occasional course corrections and bring its principles in line with the full weight of evidence.

Toward Reconciliation

When I was growing up, our local parish had liberation theology leanings. Instead of a choir, we had a band - a family appropriately named the Holys, who played folk songs about peace and togetherness. (To this day, I can't listen to Get Together by The Youngbloods without getting emotional.)

Liberation theology emerged from Latin America in the 1960s and held that the Church should actively strive at a grassroots level for social justice in the face of poverty and despotism.

In the early 1980s, the movement came under sustained attack by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who accused it of putting correct action toward the marginalized above orthodoxy (ahem) and having Marxist undertones.

The Vatican cracked down on liberation theology and censured priests who tried to advocate it. (Our own parish got a new priest, an orthodox, no-nonsense conservative, who fired the Holys and ordered the new choir to stick to selections from the Catholic Book of Worship.)

The new Pope hails from Latin America but distanced himself early on from liberation theology. However, he appears to have worked behind the scenes to protect radical priests from the wrath of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina in the 1970s.

So it may be instructive that last year, Bergoglio spoke out against church leaders he called "today's hypocrites" - priests who refuse to baptize children of single mothers who "weren't conceived in the sanctity of marriage." He denounced:

Those who clericalize the church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it's baptized!

This echoes those passages in the Gospels in which Jesus is said to have called out hypocrites among the religious leadership - those who made a big deal out of following the rules but "neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness." (Matthew 23:23)

In other words, those who put orthodoxy ahead of correct action toward the poor and marginalized.

Let us hope that Pope Francis can bring himself and his organization to apply this wisdom more broadly to the Church's teachings and dealings in a messy world.

Special thanks to Alex Sévigny for challenging me to approach the new Pope with fairness and balance instead of merely reacting to his comments on homosexuality.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By The X Guy (anonymous) | Posted March 14, 2013 at 21:00:14

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted March 14, 2013 at 23:01:47

The thing is, there really is no wrong way to use the internet. If this site were to become 20% religious content, perhaps it would lose traffic as readers might perceive a loss of focus. But one post relating to a (typically) generational news event is not out of character for this site. There are from time to time posts about music, parenthood, sports, and other topics not related to Hamilton. But even if this post was totally out of left field, who makes the rules for what people can post on their own website? You?

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By The X Guy (anonymous) | Posted March 15, 2013 at 03:11:03 in reply to Comment 87235

I understand your points on the occasional OT posts....and of course he has every right to his opinion, however I just think certain topics do not belong here, as this web site has a specific purpose. (and yes he does "own" the site). I do agree with many of his points, as well as disagreeing with many........perhaps I've been too cranky at all the overblown news coverage (good and bad) on this topic in the last 48 hrs and did not want to see yet another opinion here too. Anyways....

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By news sites (anonymous) | Posted March 15, 2013 at 14:16:56

If I were Ryan, I'd find this flattering. It means that readers want to digest every single piece on RTH. How many useless crappy non-stories are published every single day by the big media guys? But no one complains, you just skip the stuff that doesn't interest you. But on RTH, readers are used to seeing engaging content in every post, and a single deviation sends them into a snit. So X-Guy.... just skip this one. No biggie, right? :)

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By observer (anonymous) | Posted March 15, 2013 at 19:25:51

Good for Ryan. Up top, someone complains: "I believe you wrote this and posted this here to feed off of the reaction of others to make you feel better, since you know they likely share your beliefs on this." Ryan's motives are known to Ryan. Ask him, or, deal with the actual substance of this very thoughtful and, lord knows, (sorry) timely "occasional" article, on his web-site. More power to Ryan for critical thinking rather than dangerous, often stifling, casuistic jesuitical thinking. As for me, no, you don't know what my religious/priestly/rabbinical/pastoral etc. background or spiritual preference, if any, is. And I think that I didn't until know about Matthew 15:11 and its interesting online commentaries. For observant Jews, of course, it is sacrilege, and the height of dismissive convenience. For devout Christians, it's (likely) something quite different. Matthew, if you look, "borrowed" heavily from what some call the 'old' testament. Whether Matthew's written work is plagiarism or revisionism could be an interesting discussion. As well, Matthew, in making creative use of holy material from well before his time, among other things, was also a very able propagandist.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted March 16, 2013 at 16:05:19

For the reasons you brought up and a multitude of others people are fleeing the Catholic Church in droves. The educated and enlightened leave and the missionaries bring more uneducated and unenlightened masses in. Pretty easy to see where the Church is heading.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted March 16, 2013 at 23:34:32

>> The educated and enlightened leave and the missionaries bring more uneducated and unenlightened masses in.

Is that you God?

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted March 26, 2013 at 17:55:23

Bergoglio's outspokenness on poverty, personal humility and simple, unadorned lifestyle

It has been interesting to me how much credit this Pope is getting for displaying basic Christian values. Shouldn’t that be the least we expect of him?

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By Theophilus (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2013 at 04:30:37

A very thoughtful and enlightening article by Ryan !
When condoms first became generally available the Church took a stance against artificial birth control for fear that it would promote licentiousness and the break down of family and moral values. Indeed, that has happened to some extent in the modern world.There is nothing wrong with artificial birth control if used by responsible loving couples and there will be a time soon when the Church will adopt this position.

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