Reaction was swift to Pope Francis' remarks last week calling the church "obsessed" with culture war issues like homosexuality, abortion and birth control. After the pope said that Catholics should stop judging gay people and focusing incessantly on sexuality, New Ways Ministry, a pro-gay Catholic ministry, proclaimed the interview "a new dawn of hope and promise for LGBT Catholics," while Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, spun the interview as nothing new, complaining that the "problem with the left" is that "they are trying to take what the pope said and then run with it."
Religious liberals are right to be buoyed by the pope's words (and nonreligious liberals may be forgiven for continuing not to give a rat's ass what he says). But the real significance of the pope's interview is that it stands to return to the nation a moral vocabulary that the religious right has stolen and twisted for over a generation, depriving us of the capacity to think and act clearly about a range of moral issues.
As is widely pointed out, the pope's liberalizing views on sexuality don't constitute a doctrinal change in the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality. Instead, they are mainly a matter of tone and focus. But this is huge. After all, few observers seriously expect the Catholic Church to toss aside centuries of anti-gay readings of scripture in one sitting. What's critical to realize -- lest we let ourselves believe that Christian doctrine actually compels its adherents to condemn gay people -- is that anti-gay religious sentiment has always been a matter of tone and focus, so a change here, a call for greater context and perspective, is both the best we're likely to get on homosexuality and possibly all that's really needed.
It may sound like wishful pro-gay revisionism to say that Christian doctrine doesn't actually dictate anti-gay positions, that it was only the interpretations and edicts of later disciples that made gay sex an insistent focus of Christian theology and practice, but the argument is pretty simple. Yes, the New Testament says that those who have gay sex should be put to death, but the same passage that most starkly condemns homosexuality (Paul's letter to the Romans) also condemns, on equal terms, non-Christians, liars and gossips. The full list of what Paul says is worthy of death includes greed, envy, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, apostasy, insolence, arrogance and disobedience to parents (which flatly contradicts Jesus' exhortation to obey him at the expense of one's parents). Only a highly selective reading can view Christian doctrine as requiring adherence to anti-gay positions while letting atheists and the town gossip live.
But such selective readings have been exactly what many Christians (and other religious conservatives) have engaged in at various periods in the years after Jesus lived, notably the unspeakably cruel Middle Ages, and Cold War America (as well as present-day Russia and parts of Africa). Beginning in the 1970s, the religious right in America orchestrated a coup involving so thoroughly hijacking the language of morality -- taking it away from historical efforts by abolitionists, suffragists and black freedom fighters who applied "moral suasion" to help end discrimination and expand rights, and turning it into a narrow and intellectually sloppy proxy for sexual restraint -- that it now seems anathema to some to question it.
To highly religious people, the idea that one should consider context when interpreting scripture is itself anathema. But there's literally no other way to practice religion, since so much religious tradition contradicts itself. This is why it was smart and honorable of Pope Francis to call for context, saying last week that when we discuss issues of sexuality, "we have to talk about them in a context." And it's a great point. After all, why not speak equally as often about the importance of executing gossips as about condemning gay sex?
Homophobia -- and, for the most part, any feelings around sex, sexuality and reproduction -- are emotional, psychological and cultural, not doctrinal. Yet social conservatives, often citing religion to rationalize their views, have fixated on a narrow list of sexuality-related taboos that have come to be known as "moral issues." It was clear how impoverished our capacity to conceive of a broader morality has become when The New York Times wrote that the pope had criticized the church "for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized." Serving the poor and marginalized is a moral doctrine, of course, and indeed an explicit priority of the Catholic Church. But so thoroughly has the religious right seized our moral vocabulary that to many Americans, the meaning of "moral" has been reduced to simply stuff you're not supposed to do, and specifically pleasure you're not supposed to enjoy.
Incidentally, there might be good reasons -- reasons beyond religious dogma or cultural habit -- to sometimes regulate sexual activity or even curb sexual pleasure. But the religious right's theft of our moral vocabulary has resulted in a Manichean contest in which social conservatives wantonly scold, and social liberals dismiss the relevance of moral strictures altogether.
That's why the pope's remarks last week are so significant. "We have to find a new balance," he said. "Otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards." Some may feel that that moral edifice -- wracked by child abuse and financial scandals that make any moral pronouncements by the church seem like rank hypocrisy -- is a house of cards. Any hope of disabusing these folks of that notion lies with the direction this pope is now taking.