Aboard the papal flight back to the Vatican from Brazil, Pope Francis stated, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
Since then, many people have asked whether the statement signals a new openness by the Catholic Church toward gays in the priesthood and elsewhere. Some in the hierarchy, like Chicago Archbishop Cardinal George, are quick to point out that the statement represents no change in Catholic doctrine regarding the morality of sexual activity and only the value of the individual. Others, including many gay activists, hope the remark indicates a "new tone" for the church in its dealings with gays generally.
I want to suggest a possible place outside the church where this change in tone can have substantive implications. It is not regarding Catholicteaching about sexuality as such, but perhaps in the Church's lobbying against gays seeking the right to civilly marry, as well as other rights. Here is what I mean.
Two arguments the Catholic Church has used against gays being allowed to civilly marry are: first, that this would somehow demean traditional marriage generally and, second, that it would morally legitimize same-sex sexual behavior in society. Both of these arguments have been challenged on legal and constitutional grounds, and I will not restate those arguments here. What instead I will say is, if the Pope is sincere in not judging the motives of gay persons, then, with regard to the two strictly religious claims against civil marriage, the following responses can be made.
With regard to same-sex marriage somehow diminishing the civil institution of marriage, it can be noted right off that the civil institution is not the religious institution. This is most clearly shown by the fact that the civil institution is based on a contract society recognizes, while the religious institution is sacramental. This in itself provides substantial place for the two institutions to be understood differently, as well as having different purposes.
The religious institution could have the purpose of providing for both procreation and the rearing of offspring, while the civil institution would involve a great many other purposes as well (including many that serve those who choose not to have children as well as those who do) such as guaranteeing equal rights under law, and eliminating areas of discrimination in the way society treats married and non-married (including civilly-union) people, and affording greater stability to families with children because it is only by way of having a legally recognized civil marriage that the law provides certain benefits and responsibilities.
With regard to the second argument, if the tone is not to judge the intent of those seeking to civilly marry generally, then in light of the multiple benefits and responsibilities that legally accompany civil marriage, it doesn't follow that gays or anyone else seeking a civil marriage are necessarily seeking to civilly marry to justify any particular form of sexual activity, as opposed to accessing those rights and benefits that the law recognizes to accompany civil marriage. And this would also include reducing the possibility of discrimination, under law, if both same-sex and opposite-sex couples can be classified under the same legal rubric.
It is in this regard to arguments frequently made against gay rights by Church officials that I believe the "new tone" can have a politically substantial humanizing effect on the lives of gay people notwithstanding traditional Catholic doctrine.
Vincent J. Samar is adjunct professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago and Oakton Community College, and adjunct professor of law at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago-Kent College of Law.