Time and time again, Pope Francis reveals the clash of two sides of the same man: the Pope of love and tolerance versus the Pope who closes the door on the possibility of change, and sees the world through the eyes of a 79-year-old celibate cleric.
Those contradictions are most evident when the Pope addresses the arena of sexual morality, particularly when it touches on the church’s position on homosexuality.
In 2013, he was the Pope who, when asked about the church’s position on homosexual priests, responded, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” It wasn’t a reversal of church policy, but it seemed to open a door towards less condemnation and more acceptance.
In 2015, during his visit to the U.S. the Pope cordially met with a same-sex couple – a former high school student of his and the student’s male partner.
And last June, the Pope acknowledged the link between prejudice against homosexuality, and the violence at an Orlando gay nightclub where 49 people were murdered, and scores more injured by a lone gunman. The Pope agreed that the church should apologize for its intolerance not only to the gay community but also to others, among them women and children, who have been exploited and marginalized.
However, just when his attitudes seem to signal that Pope Francis has his priorities right: that he cares more about poverty and pollution than he does about what happens in Catholics’ bedrooms, he veers away from tolerance.
For example, in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, published this spring, he wrote that same-sex unions were “not even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
And news accounts last week even more dramatically revealed the Pope’s judgmental side, when he suggested that unnamed funders in the developed world are conditioning their aid to needy countries by making them accept an “ideology” that will cause kids to switch genders willy-nilly.
“Today children – children! – are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex,” Francis told the bishops of Poland on July 27. “Why are they teaching this? Because the books are provided by the persons and institutions that give you money. These forms of ideological colonization are also supported by influential countries. And this [is] terrible!”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, was appalled by the Pope’s remarks, saying they showed “a lamentable and dangerous ignorance.”
She observed that “what many, including Pope Francis, do not yet understand is that people do not ‘choose’ their genders. A gender is assigned at birth, and some people discover that they were incorrectly classified. The narratives of many transgender and gender nonconforming people show that this often begins long before they go to school. For most, the reality of their identity not matching their assigned gender persists despite incredible social, cultural, familial, and, yes, religious pressures to conform.”
She added that the Pope’s words could jeopardize the safety of transgender persons, particularly in countries with repressive laws and cultures.
Ironically, the transcript of his entire remarks to Polish bishops, largely reflects a Pope who embraces the social gospel. He cites the problems of joblessness and blames much of the world’s ills on the “idolatry of money,” which exploits both the poor and the environment.
He urges priests to think of “creative” ways to reach the unchurched. He talks about the need to reform parish life, so that priests are “close” to people. He says that parishes should be welcoming and accommodating, and offer children places to play. He asks whether parishes are doing enough to reach out to the imprisoned, aged, and infirm. He suggests that parishes in big cities be open for confessions round the clock, so penitents can always find someone to approach.
It is only at the conclusion of his remarks, almost as an afterthought, that the stern Francis steps in. I think he was influenced by the retired Benedict XVI. One can hear Benedict’s fear of the world, his sense that the church is an “embattled minority“ in an increasingly secular world.
And, indeed, Pope Francis, did refer to Benedict when he ended his speech with his ugly non sequitur about this ill-defined conspiracy to have children switch genders. “In a conversation with Pope Benedict, who is in good health and very perceptive, he said to me: ‘Holiness, this is the age of sin against God the Creator.’ He is very perceptive. God created man and woman; God created the world in a certain way… and we are doing the exact opposite. … Pope Benedict’s observation should make us think.”
The Pope’s discomfort with changing attitudes, and emerging science, about gender identity keeps his instinct for generosity and kindness in check. Having Benedict reinforce that streak in his successor is very disillusioning.
Asked about the role of Benedict, Pope Francis has remarked, “There is only one Pope.” Listening to what appears to be a battle between Francis’s fear of the world, and his embrace of it, it’s not clear whether he means it.
This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post