It is clear that the most famous and simultaneously unhelpful quotation of Francis’ pontificate is the following line from last July, regarding allegations of clerics within the Vatican being part of a “gay lobby”:

“When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.”

The left holds “Who am I to judge?” as the most significant development in Catholic teaching since the Gospel of John.  It has been cited repeatedly by liberal politicians and activists in Italy, the United States, and other countries in support of legislative efforts to grant marital status to homosexual unions, a project that was abhorrent to the Holy Father during his time in Argentina.

It appears that now Cardinal Dolan has joined the Holy Father in unintentionally providing fodder for the pro-gay marriage left.  In reference to the former University of Missouri football player Michael Sam, who came out as homosexual a few months prior to his entry into this April’s NFL draft, the cardinal said (in an interview aired on March 9th on Meet the Press), “I would have no sense of judgment on him ... [T]he same Bible that tells us, that teaches us well about the virtues of chastity and the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people.  So I would say, ‘Bravo.’”

Given the (apologies for potentially non-family-friendly ads on this link to a “gay” publication) reporting this statement has received, it seems like Dolan’s “Bravo” is going right up there with “Who am I to judge?” as the newest “breakthrough” in Catholic moral teaching for the left. What was lacking in these statements was a clear articulation of the difference between merely having homosexual desires (not inherently sinful), and actually committing same-sex actions (inherently sinful).  The absence of this distinction rendered the Pope's and cardinal's words ripe for misinterpretation.  In a time when the left is doing all it can to eliminate a meaningful distinction between desire and action both from the law and from our culture’s broader moral consciousness, I would argue that it is more important than ever for all Christians dedicated to natural law and Biblical morality to insist upon this disinction in our public discourse.

The Blurred Lines Between Act and Desire

The whole controversy actually stems from the Pope and Cardinal Dolan having a Catechism-based conception of sexual morality, and assuming in these few, unguarded public statements that their audience would make the kinds of distinctions found in the Catechism.

For Catholics, the difference between desire and action in sexuality is obvious and important; we do not judge persons for a desire that is outside of their willful control, but we must judge immoral actions and choices as immoral.  We love all men, including persons with homosexual tendencies, but we still affirm that homosexuality is a kind of inclination towards acts that are immoral. While this is obvious to orthodox Catholics like the Pope and the cardinal, it is not obvious to the culture at-large, and it is not obvious because the left has spent decades successfully demolishing any sort of meaningful distinction between act and desire.  The fact that you have a persistent sexual desire, it is assumed, means that you must or inevitably will act on it, as a kind of biological necessity.  It is the mindset underlying the condom-distributing, pro-masturbation, pro-homosexuality approach of most high school sex-ed programs.

As Facebook’s new “custom gender options” indicate, the culture defines people by their desires, rather than by their actual, biological nature as men or women whose very physical makeup (rather than their subjective desires) orders them towards communion, love, and complimentary sexual union. In fact, the project of blurring the line between desire and action is essential to the left’s goal of making discrimination on the basis of sexual activity impermissible, both in law and in the broader context of our shared cultural mores.

Generally, discrimination against similarly-situated individuals for conditions outside of their control is the essence of bigotry.  If sexual activity is deemed to be nothing more than the inevitable fruit of sexual desire, then the comparison of homosexual activity to skin color (which gay rights advocates constantly make, as a Google search of “gay marriage interracial marriage” will demonstrate) actually becomes legitimate.  If sexual action is a genuinely inevitable result of one’s non-volitional desires, then discrimination on the basis of sexual activity becomes as bigoted as discrimination based on skin color. Critically, this is the very reason why more and more courts are characterizing laws that restrict marriage to one man and one woman as arbitrary, capricious, and thereby unlawful—just as they might deem a law banning interracial marriage.  Because these laws are held not to be rationally related to any conceivably legitimate governmental interest—i.e., because they are viewed as expressions of pure bigotry—they are being found to be unconstitutional violations of the Equal Protection Clause.  In the eyes of a judicial culture for which there is no meaningful difference between sexual desires and sexual actions, these laws are little more than unbridled expressions of bigotry and animus against homosexual persons.

When You Assume…

This is where the Pope and Cardinal Dolan got into trouble.   Their statements were probably unobjectionable in a world in which one can assume that a statement of sexual desire says nothing whatsoever about a person’s intended actions.  That is not the world in which we live. Thus, without an explicit statement of what it means to “accept the Lord and have good faith,” Pope Francis’ statements were ripe for the distortion they received.  Obviously, a Catholic would understand that “accepting the Lord” and “good faith” require chastity, but the world does not understand this.  

In fact, as evidenced by the reaction to this interview, the left took the opportunity to blur the lines between act and desire still further, and tried to turn the Pope’s non-condemnation of those with homosexual inclinations into an endorsement of homosexual action.

Cardinal Dolan’s praise for Michael Sam was in some ways even more naïve.  Specifically, it reflects a naïve view of the modern practice of “coming out.”  In the overwhelming majority of situations, “coming out” is not a simple statement of one’s sexual desires, but of a broader, public embrace of a “gay” persona and lifestyle, along with the sexual activity such a lifestyle implies.  It is a cultural convention of that very community which most desires to blur the lines between desire and act in public discourse.  Thus, it generally is not something for a cardinal to praise, particularly in this situation, where Mr. Sam’s statements of sexual desire were not accompanied by any avowed embrace of chastity.

These criticisms are meant in the spirit of charity and clarity.   I would argue that, when the Pope has practically become a mascot for the gay rights movement, it is hardly radical to point out that something has gone awry.  The welcoming face that Pope Francis rightly wants the Church to present to the world must always be based in the clear truth of Christian revelation and the natural law.  If this is obscured, we will only be giving false hopes to those who want a Church different from the actual Bride of Christ.