As if often the case, Pope Francis was the subject of sensationalist headlines recently. Many of them read something along the lines of: “Pope Francis Says Catholic Church Must Apologize to Gays.” The headline is meant to give a very particular impression for those who do not bother to read the actual statements.
To give a complete context to what was said, recently a German Cardinal Marx said that the Church should apologize to homosexual not only for past faults but for current attitudes. “You cannot say that a relationship between a man and a man and they are faithful [that] that is nothing, that has no worth,” he said. And when it is against this backdrop that the subject came up to Pope Francis at a recent press conference. For a full and in depth analysis of this, I would recommend reading Jimmy Akin’s article on the topic.
But for the purposes of this article, I wanted to address the larger question of “Should the Church apologize?” There are some who think that this would weaken the Church as a moral authority if she admits her faults to the world. Others might think that the apologies should never cease for terrible things done in the name of Christ.
Before going any further, we must remember what the Church is.
The Catholic Church is the Body of Christ on Earth. We are the very presence of Jesus in the world. The Lord is with us in a special way that is not found anywhere else. In other words, as I have written before, we are not the Jesus Fan Club. That is, we are not a merely human institution putting forth only our fallible ideas. The Holy Spirit guides us and gives us His assurance that we will maintain the faith that Jesus started.
As a teacher I have never, nor will ever, apologize for teaching the truth of the Catholic faith. How could I? If I did, would I not be living a lie?
I remember I was at a meeting of high school teachers discussing how best to minister to our homosexual students. One teacher said that whenever he taught the Church’s teaching on homosexuality to his students, he had trouble looking at himself in the mirror, meaning he believed the Church’s teaching was wrong. I responded that this was the completely wrong attitude to take. If what believe is true, then the Gospel truth is the GOOD NEWS. I said that only by living in a way that is in accord with God’s plan will any of us, gay or straight, find happiness. Someone asked me if I really believed what I said. My response was, “If I didn’t, then I couldn’t be Catholic.”
I once had a mother of a gay student write me an angry letter for a presentation that supported Church teaching. In my response I wrote, “in regards to the content of the lectures, I stand by them. The Scriptures makes clear that sexual contact between 2 people of the same sex is always wrong. This is the teaching of the Church. This is the teaching of our faith. I cannot change this truth nor do I have any desire to do so. As a theology teacher in a Catholic school, I have a sacred trust to teach the truth of the Catholic faith without compromise. To violate this charge would be to betray all of the students and parents who believe that [this school] is here to bring people to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
Now, having said all of that, something else must be taken into account: the humanness of the Church.
While Christ is with the Church, we are not Christ. The Church is made up of fallible human beings. One of my favorite sayings about the Catholic Church is that it is not a museum of saints, but a hospital of sinners. But this means that while hopefully our sins are purged away and we are in the process of being perfected, most of us still carry with us our stupid sinfulness. And for that, there is much in need of forgiveness.
And this forgiveness should not only be sought from God, but from our fellow man.
At the end of each semester with my students, I allow them to ask anonymous questions which I read and answer for the class. It is designed that way so people can ask questions of theology or morality that they are too afraid to ask normally. One year, I had a student write, “I had a relationship with Jesus. But now because of you I don’t anymore. How does that make you feel?” Perhaps the question was intended to hurt and humiliate me. There is a part of me that thinks that if a nobody like me can destroy your faith, there must not have been a lot of faith there to begin with.
But in honest humility I have to look at my imperfections. It is not enough to teach the truth of Christ, we must live it. Living His love is the best way to teach it. In my response to the mother of the gay student I also wrote: “If any of my classes caused [your son] distress because of my style or mannerisms or emphasis, I will happily take correction. I do not want to place undue burdens upon those to whom I am called to bring to Christ. I will use your words and, as you advise, re-think the manner of the presentation.“
Now at the end of each year I say to my students, “If I have done anything this year through my meanness, my arrogance, my inattentiveness, my carelessness, my dismissiveness, my lack of compassion, or general foolishness that has become an obstacle between you and a relationship with God, I tell you that I am truly sorry from the bottom of my heart. I beg you not to let a jerk like me get in the way of being with the God who loves you more than anything.”
There is a fear that by apologizing for our human failings, that this will be used by the anti-Catholic forces of the world as an excuse to bash the Church. But I agree with GK Chesterton who said that for those who are going to bash the Catholic Church, “Any stick will do.”
We must remember that truth of the faith is not just about changing minds, but changing hearts as well. When we feel injured, whether those injuries are intended or not, we put up walls in our hearts. Asking the people who are hurt for forgiveness can break through those barriers. That is why Pope Francis widened the perspective of his answer to not limit our contrition only to homosexuals, but to anyone who has been injured by the sinful humanity in the Church. “I think that the Church must not only ask forgiveness… to the gay person who is offended. But she must ask forgiveness to the poor too, to women who are exploited, to children who are exploited for labor. She must ask forgiveness for having blessed so many weapons. The Church must ask forgiveness for not behaving many times – when I say the Church, I mean Christians! The Church is holy, we are sinners!”
So when confronted by our own sinfulness, the Church must kneel in penance before God and the world.
But when pressed to abandon the essential truths of the faith, the Church must not bend the knee, but stand firm of the Rock of Christ without apology.
Copyright 2016, W.L. Grayson