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Following the culture’s lead?

Pope Francis makes troubling moves on same-sex marriage

Pope Francis holds mass at Rome's Commonwealth cemetery on Nov. 2. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Medichini

Following the culture’s lead?
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When Pope John Paul II died, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ala., addressed the congregation on his passing. He said that while he was a Baptist and had obvious differences with Roman Catholicism, he felt it was important to recognize that for many millions of people in the world, the pope would be the main channel through which they encountered Christianity. Speaking to the example of John Paul II, he said, “We should hope that the next one is as good as this one was.” Such an admission was highly consequential in the kind of community that only 30 years earlier would have entertained many bizarre conceptions about the Catholic faith and those who practiced it, especially priests and popes.

John Paul II was an historic head of the Catholic Church. He’d lived in a Poland that had been dominated by both Nazis and Soviet Communists. As a youth pastor, he took young people on camping trips just so they could experience a space not dominated by the state. Improbably (perhaps even miraculously), he became the pope from behind the Iron Curtain. His papacy was characterized by his powerful stands for traditional faith commitments, for the lives of the unborn, and against the kind of liberation theology that seemed ignorant of the sins of Marxist regimes.

Two popes later, Pope Francis leads the church. Having spent much of his career in South America, he is more friendly to liberation theology and its sympathy with Marxism, despite the well-known antipathy of that school of thought for Christianity. But lately, the concern has not been flirtation with collectivism. Rather, the question is whether the pope aims to reorient the thinking of the Church when it comes to sex and marriage.

The pope is convening a major synod exploring many topics rather than having a single theme. The major headline question, though, is whether Francis intends to move the needle on the Catholic Church’s view of same-sex marriage. It seems clear that he will hold the line on marriage between a man and a woman as the ultimate expression of the Biblical vision. What is less clear is whether he and others intend to open the door to a kind of alternative recognition of same-sex unions.

The pounding drumbeat of social media means the revolution never ceases. One can stand on the rock or move to sociologically determined religion.

I spoke with associate professor of theology David Deavel of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He believes that traditional Catholics have good reason for concern that the Church may be moving in a different direction. According to Deavel, “What is worrisome about the way he (Pope Francis) frames this (and did in Amoris Laetitia) is that marriage is something that other unions realize ‘in a partial and analogous way.’ Of course in some abstract sense this is true, but what it looks like to many is that he is setting marriage up as an ‘ideal,’ which may not be realizable, so let’s accept other relationships so long as we don’t call them marriage.” Whether or not Francis has the intent to accomplish a change, Deavel suggests that his words will “surely be interpreted as allowing blessings for same-sex couples.”

Christians around the world and of every denominational commitment face the question of how they should be thinking about the Bible in the era in which they live. It will matter politically, culturally, and spiritually if the Catholic Church ultimately chooses to disavow the classical, biblical interpretation of human sexuality in favor of newer cultural understandings. If the massive Catholic Church declares a new way of thinking, then those who continue to stand for clear, convictional scriptural truth over and above human desires will become more isolated, more pressured, and more likely to lose heart.

Every Christian leader, every pastor, and every Christian believer will have to deal with the increasingly unavoidable reality that our age has opened questions that are settled from a scriptural perspective short of the heavy application of casuistry. It is no longer a matter of weathering the occasional news feature or television interview. Instead, the pounding drumbeat of social media means the revolution never ceases. One can stand on the rock or move to sociologically determined religion. Whether Francis the Catholic or Andy Stanley the megachurch pastor, the decision is the same. Does the Church impact culture or is it the other way around?

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the dean of the faculty and provost of North Greenville University.

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