Pontifex means Bridge-builder

This is a personal opinion piece written in reaction to news relating to Pope Francis' vocal support for same-sex civil unions. You can read more about it here.

When I was 24 in 2014, I was just starting my first year teaching in a new town in Northwestern Indiana. I was a Roman Catholic churchgoer my whole life, but like many students during college, I drifted away from the faith. However, now that I was starting a new job in a new town, I felt like also starting my religious practices anew.

I found a nice little Roman Catholic Church and started attending every weekend. After sitting in the pews for a while, I felt a call to help out with Sunday religious education. I enjoyed the opportunity to see my students outside of the classroom at a place I always considered my second home--the local church.

For several months, things went well. I was enjoying my new job, the people and students I worked with, and the opportunity to be back at church. That changed one afternoon when I got a call from my religious education supervisor.

The voice on the phone sounded disappointed, almost as if she was preparing to deliver bad news. I will try to convey the conversation that followed as best as I remember. However, keep in mind this was several years ago and the entire phone conversation lasted less than a few minutes.

“Hello James. I have heard from Father [So-and-So] that one of your students overheard you in class saying how you didn’t have a problem with gay marriage.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“I have to ask you though if that is really what you think?”

“Yes. It is.”

“And you know the church’s teaching on this? About marriage between a man and a woman?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And you don’t believe that?”

“No, not really.”

“Well, I hate to say this but I’m going to have to ask that you not teach Sunday school anymore.”

She apologized for having to deliver this bad news. I said I completely understood. I knew very well the Catechism’s teaching on homosexuality. I had been struggling for years (with little success) to square the Church’s official teaching with what I actually experienced in my everyday life. I didn’t think, however, that an off-the-cuff personal opinion would have barred me from teaching Sunday school, especially because I was pretty orthodox in most other matters of faith.

Now, 6 years later, I read this past Wednesday morning concerning Pope Francis’ support of civil partnerships for same-sex couples. Like his previous comments about withholding judgment about gay people, these comments of his are not official church teaching. No catechism has changed. No Papal Bull issued. No encyclical written. Instead, what I believe the Pope has done is made it okay for someone like me 6 years ago to openly say “Yes, I disagree with church policy regarding gay people” but still be considered a good Catholic. While this was perhaps already true in some liberal parts of the country like here in San Francisco--and the Episcopal Church, to which I belong as a Catholic Christian which affirms same-sex marriage--a small-town Indiana boy like me never had affirming voices on my side if I expressed disagreements with official church policy.

I completely understand the position my former religious education supervisor found herself in. A parent probably complained to the priest that one of their child’s teachers who was a religious education volunteer let it slip that he didn’t think gay marriage was wrong. The priest called the religious educator to fix the issue, demanding that the line be towed or else her job was on the line. What was she to do? Besides, I had only been helping for a few months. I doubt the priest even really knew who I was.

As an Anglican, I feel excited about the future of the Catholic faith and what Francis’ words mean for us all. I am glad to see Pope Francis speaking out in favor of something even he admittedly agreed with while he was a bishop in Argentina several years ago. Again, while no official change in church policy has taken place, there are still several folks out there--Roman, Anglican, and Orthodox, for example--who feel afraid to even question traditional church teaching without seeming like they are outside the church. Pope Francis has offered a great gift to many by affirming that “Yes, you can still be an orthodox Christian and disagree with traditional church teaching.”

Looking at the website of that old parish back in Northwestern Indiana, neither the priest nor the religious education director remains. Like many candidates after receiving the sacrament of Confirmation, they have moved on. However, the rejection I received there remains in me, just as I reckon the rejection so many gay brothers and sisters have received in the two millennia prior to Pope Francis’ words remains in them as well.

Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at jamesnathanielssf@gmail.com. If you are interested in learning how to invite Br James or one of the Franciscan brothers to your parish for a retreat, mission, quiet day, or to preach on a Sunday, please contact us with the email address provided above.


+ May our holy father Francis pray to the Lord that we may have the grace to observe the Gospel with greater devotion.  Amen.

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