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Pope Francis' Comments: 'A Bridge, Not A Barrier'?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, the barbershop guys are in to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. But first, it's time for "Faith Matters." That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we want to take a look back at Pope Francis' history making trip to Brazil. By now, you've probably heard that His Holiness made headlines with a comment about gays in the priesthood.

But you might not know what he actually said and what it means. We wanted to talk about that and a number of other thought provoking comments and moves that the pontiff made on his trip. So we've called Anthea Butler. She's a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Also with us, once again, is a Father Leo Patalinghug. He's a priest with the Archdiocese of Baltimore and a noted author. Thank you both so much for joining us.



MARTIN: So let's talk about the comments that seemed to get the most attention, I mean, that made headlines internationally. What Pope Francis said was, quote, if someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge, end quote. Professor Butler, these comments were reported around the world as a change or at least a change in kind of the body language of the church around the whole question of gay priests. Do you think it was?

BUTLER: I think it was a change in tone. I don't know if it's a change in theology. I think that what Pope Francis did was really important for this reason. His face was warm when he was saying it, so that's the first thing. And I think that this is a difference between his manner of speaking visa vie Pope Benedict's. Neither one of them are wrong. It's just that, everybody has - you know, popes have personalities, right. So when Pope Benedict says this is an intrinsically disorder thing, he's saying something about theology. When Pope's Francis said who am I to judge - and to paraphrase - what he's saying is that I'm not going to judge somebody about who they are. He's not saying something about what the teachings of the church is. He's saying about how should we embrace people who come into the church. And to use the word gay, also, is very important because that's not a word that you would usually, normally hear someone this high up in the church - the Pope - use.

MARTIN: What would you hear?

BUTLER: I think you would hear, you know, homosexual. You would hear that word. You wouldn't hear gay. Gay is more colloquial or LGBT, right? This is what, you know, what everybody else would use. I just - I think I was actually surprised that he said gay.

MARTIN: Well, just to let people know what you're talking about, in case they are not aware of the comments that you're referring to, Pope Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict, was quoted as saying quote, homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation. That's from the book "Light of the World," - the Pope, the church and the signs of the times. He also signed a document in 2005 that said that men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies should not be priests. So, Father Leo, how did you interpret these comments? And I'm wondering if people within the church, the people that you talk to - your congregants, parishioners - are they as interested in this as the media has been?

PATALINGHUG: Well, I think the media is doing a fantastic job of making an interpretation of something that obviously the Holy Father didn't say. And so, I think some of the things he said is taken out of context. He was speaking specifically about a man seeking the priesthood, and he said nothing new. And I would agree with Professor Butler in that he did provide a different tone. You know, a pontiff's job is to be a bridge, not a barrier to anybody. And so that's obviously what the word means. I was a little impressed with just how the media's taken this into a different direction, but it kind of shows that there is a hunger on the part of the word - and even people who don't believe in the authority of the Pope -they still want to seek his approval.

And so while the Pope didn't say anything new, he did give a perspective of trying to truly reach out to people who have - and I guess another phrase would be used same-sex attractants - trying to let them know that they can love God, they can love Jesus and they can still serve. And I think he acknowledges the fact that there are some priests who are homosexual - and some would even consider themselves in that colloquial expression, gay. And yet, he can even be a saint. Look, if a prostitute, a sinner and a tax collector can eat with Jesus in the kingdom of heaven, the Holy Father's just letting people know there's hope for everyone.

MARTIN: Apart from these comments, what else stood out for you about the trip, Father Leo?

PATALINGHUG: Well, the trip just kind of showed - again, his style is that to reach out to the common man. What Benedict did was provide a real intellectual framework for people, but there is a pastoral dimension. I think many of my colleagues would say that he is very much like the parish priest down the street, but on a universal level.

MARTIN: Professor Butler, what about you?

BUTLER: Yeah, I think there were several. First off, just his willingness to forgo all the trappings of the papacy. So riding in that little compact car and getting smushed in between the buses in Rio. If you've ever been to Rio, you know that the traffic is horrendous. So that was a frightening moment for me personally, but he didn't seem to mind. And then the thing that probably people may not have noticed - and I watched it all week, so I'm just going to put that out there - is the kinds of things that he said to the clergy. To talk about - when he met with the bishops - to say, you know, you're making - I'm going to paraphrase again - you're making too many organizations and things that keep you from the people.

MARTIN: Father Leo, did you see it that way, as well? I know one gesture that he made - and I don't even think it's a gesture, I'm not even sure he was thinking about it - was carrying his own bag.


MARTIN: I mean, people just went crazy over that.

PATALINGHUG: They did. They did.

MARTIN: And he was like, uh, really?

PATALINGHUG: I guess if Jesus can carry a cross, he can carry his own baggage. But the idea of calling him the "slum pope," that's actually, probably a term of endearment because it shows that he can walk, you know, in the streets with everybody else, you know, in regards to what he said. To a lot of the bishops and the priests, he said, you can't just simply live in the intellectual or academic world, you have to start speaking human language, so that it doesn't go over people's heads - and I'm certainly paraphrasing here - but more importantly, touches their hearts.

MARTIN: Professor Butler, last time you were on the program, you described yourself as a dissenting Catholic for any number of reasons, which I'm sure people can intuit from what we've talked about so far. Do you mind if I ask you, has Pope Francis - what he's done so far, what he's talked about so far - we haven't even talked about what he said about women in the church - has he done anything to change your relationship with the church? To make you feel closer or more distant?

BUTLER: Well, I would say this - and again, now I'm going to reveal something about myself - I'm a stand for the Jesuits, OK. I really am. My first job was at a judgment institution and I value Jesuit spirituality. So the fact that he was just a Jesuit already won me over, OK. But what I've seen so far has been really moving to me. And I am not naive enough to think that things are going to change tomorrow about LGBT issues, or women in the church becoming priests, but what I do sense is that this is a breath of fresh air pushing out a lot of bad air.

MARTIN: I want to ask each of you this before we let you go. Catholicism remains a dominant force in American religious life and in American social life. And I know this is a worldwide church, but just speaking of the American church now - and also in Latin American, too, there's been challenges from the right and from the left. I mean, there are people obviously who disagree with the traditional church position on matters like, same-sex attraction, on women serving in leadership. For other people, they feel a very different way. They feel that the church must hold the line on these issues because if it doesn't, what does it stand for? How do you bridge that? Can one person bridge those things? And Professor Butler, I'll start with you. And then Father Leo, I'll give you the last word. So, Professor Butler?

BUTLER: Yeah, I think it is difficult for - to put all of that on Francis. You know, we're talking about a church that's, you know, 2,000 years old. Things do not change overnight. But the uniqueness of the Catholic Church is to be able to hold the liberals, the conservatives, you know, the traditionalists, the Vatican, too, people altogether, right. And so we have to struggle and work through this. I don't personally want to be a priest. I would love to see women being priests. Not everybody agrees with me.

I would like to see there be more openness for LGBT communities. That's not going to happen right now in certain kinds of ways. But it doesn't mean that the church isn't working on those things in other kinds of ways. And so if we look just to Pope Francis as a person who does this, I think you have to look to the local parishes, what people are doing within their parish to see how change comes about. And I think time is going to change a lot. You know, you can say, spirituality doesn't change and, you know, these things are unchangeable. But, you know, things have changed over the years. But in the Catholic Church, it takes a long time.

MARTIN: Father Leo?

PATALINGHUG: Yes. For me, I always have seen the Catholic theology in its approach as trying to give good news, even if the news is a bitter pill to swallow. And in the same regard, our faith comes from - not our own, it's not a democracy - but something that's been transmitted from scripture and tradition. And so the content cannot change, but the form can look a little differently. In other words, while the matter will always be the same or the content of the teachings of the church - it's not for us to change - we can learn how to communicate that a little differently because our language changes. I think he's teaching us all a lesson that evolution within species - because we do believe in that - it is real. And the evolution for us as the Catholic Church, we're just getting better at giving the good news.

MARTIN: Father Leo Patalinghug is a priest with the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He's also the author of a number of noted cookbooks. He joined us from San Francisco. Anthea Butler is a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She joined us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BUTLER: Thank you so much for having us.

PATALINGHUG: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.