Published April 3, 2023
Airports harbor interesting stories. Here’s an example. On my way home from a speaking engagement recently, I spent time with a lay friend, a young scholar, while he waited for his flight. We fell to talking, and the conversation soon turned to the Church. Ten years earlier, he’d been working on his doctorate at a Jesuit university in the east. On the morning Pope Francis was elected, he bumped into an acquaintance, a prominent Jesuit scholar on the ecclesial left, and congratulated him on now having one of his own as pope.
The response was surprising. “It’s a disaster,” the priest said. He then went on at length about the unhappy experience of then-Father Bergoglio’s leadership as provincial superior of the Jesuit community in Argentina; a tenure (he said) marked by authoritarian ambiguity, abrasive behavior, and a pattern of not listening to his brothers.
Of course, that was then. This is now. Time has passed. People do usually learn from their mistakes. And exaggeration is not unknown in the telling of a story; in fact, the whole story told by my friend might be nasty hearsay—if Francis hadn’t acknowledged his awkward leadership style himself in 2013. So I remembered it as I read the latest Glas Koncila interview with Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich. His Eminence, also a Jesuit, is the man chosen by Francis as general relator for the upcoming “synod on synodality.” We all bear responsibility for our choices. That includes popes. It’s something to keep in mind in assessing the cardinal’s remarks.
In 2022, referencing Catholic teaching on the disordered nature of homosexuality, Hollerich indicated that “I believe that this [teaching] is false. But I also believe that here we are thinking further about the teaching. So, as the Pope has said in the past, this can lead to a change in teaching. So I believe that the sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer correct.” He subsequently walked back his comments, and affirmed Church teaching. But his actual convictions can be gleaned quite easily from his latest remarks.
Hollerich: When Church teaching [on sexual behavior] was made, the term homosexuality did not even exist. Homosexuality is a new word; even in the time of Saint Paul, people had no idea that there might be men and women attracted to the same sex.
Glas Koncila: What about Paul’s numerous rebukes of sodomy?
Hollerich: Sodomy was seen as something merely orgiastic at the time, typical of married people who entertained slaves for personal lust. But how can you condemn people who cannot love except the same sex? For some of them it is possible to be chaste, but calling others to chastity seems like speaking Egyptian to them.
GK: Does that annul their calling to chastity?
Hollerich: We can only charge people with moral conduct they can bear in their world. If we ask impossible things of them, we will put them off. If we say everything they do is intrinsically wrong, it is like saying their life has no value. Many young people came to me as a father and spoke to me about being homosexual. And what does a father do? Does he throw them out or embrace them unconditionally?
GK: Are those two the only options?
Hollerich: No, but homosexual people must feel welcome in our house. Otherwise, they will go away. The Pope said something crucial about this topic. I paraphrase him: surely, homosexuality is a sin – like all sex outside of marriage is a sin.
GK: But the Catholic tradition treats homosexual behavior more harshly than it treats fornication.
Hollerich: You are speaking of the Catholic treatment of sodomy.
GK: You are saying we cannot equate sodomy with homosexuality?
Hollerich: Sodomy is also present among married men and women.
GK: But the Church condemns it all the same following the natural moral law. Pardon our analogy, but is it not wrong to tell someone who inclines to steal not to steal too much? Should we not just say: “You shall not steal?”
Hollerich: Yes, of course, we should. But a person with a tendency to steal can manage without stealing. A homosexual person will always love people of the same sex. We should not reduce homosexuality to inordinate sexual relations. That is a very crude way of understanding a human person.
Where to begin? Hollerich’s claim that “in the time of Saint Paul, people had no idea that there might be men and women attracted to the same sex” is simply nonsense; embarrassing and anti-historical nonsense. And it sets the tone for the rest of the interview. A glance at Petronius’s Satyricon—written in the latter half of the first century A.D., and quite possibly while Paul was still alive in Rome—captures the pervasive sexual anarchy of the city, including its widespread homoeroticism. At the time, one would need to be deaf, dumb, and blind to miss the obvious. Nothing in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans suggests that he was. In fact, Satyricon was written, in part, as a satire, chronicling the collapse of Rome’s traditional virtues into the greed, violence, lusts, and corruptions of empire.
His Eminence also makes a distinction between homosexuality and sodomy, noting that married couples too can engage in the latter. True enough. But sodomy is hardly the standard way of expressing married, or even heterosexual, love. And without going into needless detail, the human body is naturally ordered to certain forms of sexual behavior, to the exclusion of others. Unless one regards the body as raw material lacking inherent moral purpose—a notion deeply at odds with Christian anthropology—the varieties of gay genital intimacy cannot be licit, ever. As the cardinal surely knows, emotional attraction alone does not justify behavior. And speaking the truth about human sexuality is not an act of cruelty, but the opposite. As Augustine said, we have a duty to hate the sin, but also to love the sinner. That demands a spirit of patience and pastoral sensitivity, and especially a respect for individuals, in dealing with same-sex issues. But it also precludes caving in to the pressures of a sexual revolution hostile to Christian truth and the nature of the human person.
One of the key flaws in Hollerich’s approach is that he underestimates the power of God’s grace and (in previous remarks) overestimates the credibility of social science, a branch of knowledge not known for its sympathy toward religion, and arguably not real “science” at all. And this in turn produces a diminished view of Scripture’s reliability. Hollerich is right in observing that we should welcome persons with same-sex attraction who seek a home in the Church. But that does not license changing Catholic belief to ease their discomfort; especially at the expense of faithful Catholics who do struggle to live Church teaching honestly. That kind of “compassion” is actually a form of dishonesty to those with same-sex attraction, and violence against the ordinary, sincere believer.
In the same interview, His Eminence manages to exhume the corpse of the “women priests” issue, firmly buried by John Paul II in his document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. And as an added bonus, he offers us an abortion truism: “If the Church appears to isolate the abortion issue, it will hurt its position, which in the end favors only abortion.” Yes, as the father of a son with Down syndrome and the grandfather of three children with serious disabilities, I agree that those words are accurate . . . and they’re also endlessly repeated as a weasel-line to contextualize and demote the abortion issue, and thus navigate around the awkward fact that abortion (in the words of the early Church Fathers) is a form of homicide.
In abortion, somebody always dies. I should also note that in my twenty-seven years of diocesan service, the Church overwhelmingly spent her time, personnel, and resources on education of the young and on social services for the homeless, the immigrant, and the poor. The Church has never isolated the abortion issue from the full moral content of her teaching. Suggesting otherwise is simply false.
Hollerich is an intelligent man, and the full Glas Koncila interview is worth reading because some of his comments have real value. But overall, his role at the upcoming synod—a project that’s already drawn articulate criticism and concern—is not encouraging. I was struck in particular by the interviewer’s observation that, as with Cardinal Hollerich himself, “More and more Jesuits surround the first Jesuit Pope in the Vatican.”
Maybe that’s one of the problems.
Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.