Understanding Pope Francis’ controversial remarks on homosexuality in the priesthood

Pope Francis leads an audience at the Vatican on Nov. 30. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)Pope Francis leads an audience at the Vatican on Nov. 30. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

In a new book based on interviews with a Spanish priest, Pope Francis says that homosexuality in the priesthood is “something that worries me” and a “very serious” question. He remarks that gay priests who cannot maintain their vows of celibacy should leave the priesthood rather than live “double lives,” advises against admitting gay men into seminaries if their homosexuality is “deep seated” and suggests that a societal perception of homosexuality as “fashionable” has permeated Catholic culture.

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The pope’s comments have provoked consternation among previous admirers, who worry that he is walking back the more pastoral approach to L.G.B.T. Catholics that has been his hallmark, and rejoicing among some of his usual critics, who complain that his persistent emphasis on mercy can sometimes break church doctrine. Others likely found themselves simply perplexed in the wake of this latest controversy. Is this the same guy who asked, “Who am I to judge?” in deflecting questions about a gay priest in 2013?

If homosexual priests who stumble on celibacy should leave the priesthood, Catholics and church observers asked on social media, what about heterosexual priests who similarly struggle with their vows?

“Pope Francis has, not for the first time, been misunderstood, and a few headline writers gave people the wrong impression,” America editor at large James Martin, S.J., said in an interview conducted by email on Dec. 3. “But his comments were rather confusing to begin with.

“Pope Francis has, not for the first time, been misunderstood, and a few headline writers gave people the wrong impression.”

“He first speaks about gay priests expressing their ‘affections’—that is, being sexually active—which he obviously condemns,” Father Martin notes. “He says that they shouldn’t be accepted into seminaries or religious orders, but then he says that gay priests should be ‘impeccably responsible,’ leading to the conclusion that he accepts them if they are celibate…. My sense is that he is essentially reminding gay priests to be celibate—like all priests are called to be.”

The pope’s suggestion that “homosexuality” had become “fashionable” in contemporary Western culture startled and pained many. “I can’t speak for Pope Francis, but I’m assuming by ‘fashionable’ he means that one sees it more and more in public life,” says Father Martin. “But if he means that one is gay simply because it’s ‘fashionable,’ that’s not only wrong but hurtful and perpetuates the idea that gay people ‘choose’ their orientation. That would mean he’s going against not only every reputable psychiatrist but the lived experience of L.G.B.T. people.”

But had the pope really strayed far from what the church has already said about gay men in the priesthood or in preparation for it?

“Not really,” says Father Martin. “But it’s important to see his comments in context with his past remarks on gay priests and L.G.B.T. people. His most famous quote, ‘Who am I to judge?’ was a response to a question about gay priests. And, more recently, he told his friend Juan Carlos Cruz, a gay man and abuse victim, ‘God made you like this.’”

The psychologist Thomas Plante, the Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J. University Professor in psychology at Santa Clara University in California, tracks the source of the pope’s latest headline-generating contretemps back to 2005, when the Vatican released an instruction on admitting men with “homosexual tendencies” to the priesthood. That document indeed proposes the same distinctions Francis briefly attempted to parse in his book-length dialogue with Fernando Prado, C.M.F., The Strength of Vocation: Consecrated Life Today—that while it was acceptable to admit candidates who had experienced “transitory” homosexuality into Catholic seminaries, candidates with “deep seated homosexuality” should be prevented from entering, if always treated with sensitivity and respect.

The problem is such distinctions do not hold up well under modern psychological scrutiny. “Sometimes our beloved church gets burdened by these documents in some respects,” Dr. Plante says. “I think the folks in the Roman collars and red hats writing these documents could use a little help from professionals in the field,” he adds. The instruction’s language does not reflect “what we really know now about human sexuality and homosexuality and how it all works.”

“Pope Francis, I love him, but he is not a mental health professional.”

Dr. Plante has conducted thousands of evaluations of seminary applicants and has essentially thrown his hands up—along with the seminary directors who consult with him—in trying to make the distinctions the Vatican apparently insists on.

“The critical issue here is that people’s sexual orientation, from a psychological view and a risk-factor view in terms of the clergy abuse crisis, is irrelevant,” Dr. Plante says. “It is how they manage their impulses that’s important. How they manage their desires, their impulses, gay or straight—that’s really the issue.”

When the pope speaks off the cuff on such a charged subject, Dr. Plante worries that “homosexual priests get scapegoated because of the fact that they’re gay, not the fact of what they are doing with their orientation….It is who they are, not what they do, and that is a really big problem.

Dr. Plante wonders why the pope and other church leaders do not more often reach out to professionals in psychology or human sexuality before they speak out on the subject. “You want clarity here because it is such a hot topic,” he says. “There is so much emotion, so much anger and hostility” around the issue. “You have to take a deep breath and be very clear about your communication because when you are not really clear, other people are going to project their own narratives, their own storylines,” he says, voicing concern that some will use the pope’s imprecision as “ammunition” to bash gay men in the priesthood.

Father Martin agrees that the use of “imprecise language” or comments that “seem to contradict one another” can confuse people “and, in some cases, demoralize them.”

“They also tend to then be used by ‘both sides’ and create further division in the church,” he says. “We all speak off the cuff, but I suppose when you’re the pope those off-the-cuff remarks are more likely to cause damage.”

Dr. Plante does not believe, as some headlines suggest, that Pope Francis or the Holy See wishes to drive gay men out of the priesthood. “Let’s see how that works out, if we really had an inquisition and took out all the priests who identify as gay,” he says. Dr. Plante speculates that would mean a reduction of “one-third to half” of the priesthood and the removal and humiliation of “folks who have done nothing wrong and are managing their impulses, something you have to do whether you are married or celibate or straight clergy.”

“Pope Francis, I love him, but he is not a mental health professional,” Dr. Plante says. “Why not talk to the professionals in the field?... There are many engaged Catholics out there who want to help and know something about this stuff. Let us help you. We mean well and we want to help the church.

“If the Vatican had a leaky roof,” Dr. Plante says, “you wouldn’t send a guy in a Roman collar and a red hat up on a ladder to fix it, would you?”

Tony B. de Castro
1 week 2 days ago

A quaestio facti: is is correct for Plante to assume, it seems that way, that the Vatican document in question had no input from psychologists? The Gregorian University in Rome has an Institute of Psychology. Perhaps the question is: do psychologists everywhere agree on this issue?

J. Calpezzo
1 week 2 days ago

Nice try Kevin. The Pontiff is as clueless here as with the clergy abuse scandal

Karen Mulhern
1 week 2 days ago

If all unmarried Catholics are meant to be celibate, why is this even a discussion for those who chose vocations? The problem isn't one's orientation/preference...it's lack of moral rectitude. (Imo)

Bev Ceccanti
1 week 2 days ago

One should not place oneself or cause someone else to be placed in an environment of temptation of deadly sin, regardless of orientation. This move is sinful in itself.. It doesn't
matter what psychologists say, We all know it would be irresponsible to house Catholic 'brothers and nuns in the same household. Recognize the sexual response of human beings and plan accordingly.. No one. No one should be 'set up' to engage adultery, especially when under the pain of sacrilege. Those who have homosexual tendencies should not become priests unless that orientation is taken into account and there is a useful mission for them that will not require them to live or work in intimate proximity to those they are sexually drawn to. The Commandments cannot be be subjugated to ' psychology', It's a slippery tool in the hands of the devil...

Karen Mulhern
1 week 2 days ago

Bev Ceccanti, you really think "proximity" breeds "temptation"? That's so absurd...again, lack of commitment and utter disregard of Church teachings is the problem. If a person has their heart and spirituality in the proper place, celibacy is a no brainer and temptation easily withstood.

Bev Ceccanti
5 days 4 hours ago

Thank you Karen Mulhern , I changed 'close proximity' to 'intimate proximity'. It better reflects the intention of my statement.

Gene 92118
1 week 2 days ago

While some argue, "Gay or straight priests - as long as they are celibate," the fact is that straight seminarians give up marriage and family (spouse and children) which is a sacrament - a visible sign of Christ's presence in this world. But what do gay seminarians give up? A lifestyle and a behavior the Church views as sinful. How many thousands of heterosexual priests and seminarians have left the church because half the bishops and priests in the US today are homosexuals? Straight guys don't want to go to gay bars, and straight priests and seminarians do not want to hang out with gay clerics who use the priesthood to cover-up their homosexuality. If being a priest with a homosexual orientation is OK, then why doesn't Cardinal "nighty-night-baby, I love you" Tobin come out along with Father Martin?

Joseph O'Leary
1 week 1 day ago

I think homophobic catholics are well puniehed by the gaying of their clergy (thank you St John Paul II)!

Frank Pray
1 week 2 days ago

Show me the data! The issue, I agree is not homosexuality but sexuality and celibacy. But . . .what is the data, and what would it suggest? If child molestation by priests is occurring at a higher incidence among homosexual pedophiles than among heterosexual pedophiles, then something accounts for the disparity. Is it a “culture” of homosexuality generally, or perhaps is is some combination of factors? Maybe it is that the Church has been for too long a protective cloak of secrecy for pedofiles. I mean, you’re put in a position of trust, and have a ready made coverup apparatus. Yet, I also question any assumption that sexual impulsity control is unique or significantly different based on sexual orientation. But let’s face it: some criminals perceive the Church as a safe haven for molestation. I’m also curious if seminaries attract more homosexual men compared to the homosexual population at large? If so, we need to ask why? What are these men looking for in the priesthood? I doubt homosexuality is a genetic indicator of vocational calling. In the short term, Pope Francis is right to require strict scrutiny before allowing homosexual men into the priesthood. The problem is real, and the Church is in crisis. In the meantime, the unraveling of the causative factors can proceed.

James Haraldson
1 week 1 day ago

'Dr.." Plante and other "mental health professionals" tend to be horses ass ideologues and even more bigoted towards Catholicism than the editors of America magazine. It is obvious to any sane mind that homosexuality is a chosen lifestyle built on systematic chastiphobic delusional making every bit as much as their decision to deny the humanity of the unborn, the inconvenient result of chastiphobia applied to heterosexual relations.

F C
1 week 1 day ago

James Haraldson
Are you speaking from personal experience?

Gino Dalpiaz
1 week 1 day ago

THIS PLANET IS OVER-POPULATED . . . ?

What planet is Frank living on? He complains that “This planet is over-populated and polluted,” The problem today is that most countries are not replacing their populations. All of Europe is depopulating and slowly going out of existence for lack of children. With its devastating one-child policy over the past forty or fifty years, China has now the fastest aging and oldest population in the world and has passed the tipping point and, mathematically, cannot recreate itself. Japan’s population, too, is very old and aging fast. The same for Hong Kong, Singapore, South Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, etc., etc. It will take generations to heal Planet Earth of the cancer of under-population.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
1 week 1 day ago

The modern Jesuit's approach to the papacy: wholehearted agreement when he agrees with the pope; "clarification" and jesuitical "contextualization" when he doesn't. The same kind of excuse-making as when Benedict XVI made it clear in 2006 that homosexuals should not be admittedto seminaries. Reminds me of my dissertation on John Paul's sexual ethics at Fordham back in 1985: five defense board members = 3 Jesuits, 1 diocesan priest, 1 Mormon. Two of the three Jesuits had varying degrees of "concerns" with John Paul's theology, as did the diocesan priest. The Mormon opened his remarks with "there's some very good things here." (PS: He subsequently converted, but only after leaving "a university in the Jesuit tradition").

Tim O'Leary
1 week 1 day ago

John - I wonder where the 4 Catholics are today. The LDS conversion reminds me of the parable of the feast, where the invited guests fail to show and the master fills their seats with the outsiders. Great post, sad but typical.

Mike Theman
1 week 1 day ago

Nice try, Father Martin,
Notice that P. Francis did not say that heterosexuality worries him or poses a serious question. He does not say that straight priests who cannot maintain their vows of celibacy should leave the priesthood. And he does not advise against admitting straight men into seminaries if their heterosexuality is “deep seated."

The issue is homosexuality, not all sex drive and celibacy.

Mike Macrie
1 week 1 day ago

A Brief History of Celibacy in the
Catholic Church
First Century
Peter, the first pope, and the apostles that Jesus chose were, for the most part, married men. The New Testament implies that women presided at eucharistic meals in the early church.

Second and Third Century
Age of Gnosticism: light and spirit are good, darkness and material things are evil. A person cannot be married and be perfect. However, most priests were married.

Fourth Century
306-Council of Elvira, Spain, decree #43: a priest who sleeps with his wife the night before Mass will lose his job.
325-Council of Nicea: decreed that after ordination a priest could not marry. Proclaimed the Nicene Creed.
352-Council of Laodicea: women are not to be ordained. This suggests that before this time there was ordination of women.
385-Pope Siricius left his wife in order to become pope. Decreed that priests may no longer sleep with their wives.

Fifth Century
401-St. Augustine wrote, Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a
man downwards as the caresses of a woman.

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sheila gray
1 week 1 day ago

The Catholic Church’s Teaching on homosexuality is wrong, ignorant, and an abomination to Jesus Christ himself. Because all that mattered to him was that we should love one another, which all you haters and homophobes out there never get right. BORING article. Boring comments. Bye Bye, America Magazine readers. I will never read you again.

Tim O'Leary
1 week 1 day ago

Sheila - are you the same person who was seduced/abused by a nun who you confronted years later? You were extremely upset with her and blamed the Church for letting it happen. Are you lesbian after all?

Tim O'Leary
1 week 1 day ago

Fr. Martin is trying very hard to spin this, but he is failing badly. He "re-interprets Pope Francis’s word “affections” to mean sexually active, when the Holy Father is most likely speaking about the very "fashionable" overt display of LGBT sexual affections (like in the Pride parades). It is the approval of homosexual displays and overt acts that are “fashionable.” Gay marriage made it so. This interview is consistent with the pope’s prior statement in May 2018 that men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies should not be seminarians https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/report-pope-francis-affirms-chu…, and his re-approval of Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis re priestly life in 2016 that has the same stipulation re seminarians.  http://www.clerus.va/content/dam/clerus/Ratio%20Fundamentalis/The%20Gif
It is also consistent with statements from Pope Francis against gay marriage and gay adoption and gender ideology, which he thinks is demonic and fashionable.

F C
1 week 1 day ago

The Pontiff's reference to homosexuality as 'fashionable' greatly harms countless same-sex attracted Catholics of good-will. His words are wrong, gratuitous and deeply insulting - anybody who is homosexual or has homosexual friends/family or who has allowed themselves to listen deeply to the testimony of people directed affected, will know this straight away.

Stephen Shore
1 week ago

Once again, the liberal "Catholic" laity and clerics are in angst over the "acceptance" of the homosexual contingent in the Church. To say that this issue is not "arguable" but should be accepted as FACT by all of us "closed minded" population is in itself an act of arrogance.

The far left has succeeded in re-defining marriage in most of the western world. At least in regard to same sex marriage. Now that that boundary is breached, where does this stop? If the only definition is "consenting adults", then that opens up more "types" of marriage - multiple partners, contract term lengths, etc.

The only question should be - Is this REALLY good for the raising of children? Is this really good for keeping intact, cohesive families together? Is this really the best thing for getting to heaven? Is this a sin?

Most Catholics (and Christians for that matter), think that the definition of "sin" is outdated and without meaning in today's world. The concept of making moral choices - and the fact that the Christian religion actually has firm stances on moral issues - is outdated. What has happened is that the centuries old Christian foundation of putting others best interests and needs above our own personal needs is no longer taught or valued. The self-centered orientation of today's society is slowly destroying our people.

Just look at all of the fatherless children and broken families in our country. Is this really what we think is best? Is single parenthood really something to celebrate as the left seems to do?

Now, don't get me started on the far right either - that is for another comment section, but that contingent is just as dangerous for the Church as much as the far left is.....

Andrea Campana
1 week ago

Isn't what the Pope is saying fairly obvious? If you're homosexual and a priest, you are exposed to vastly more temptation, because you are living in a community of men. If you're heterosexual and a priest, you have less opportunity to sin, because you are not living with women.

Michael Barberi
1 week ago

Pope Francis remarks are confusing and incoherent because words like "fashionable" and "affection" and "deep-seated SSA inclinations" are not clearly defined.

I repeat some truths:

> The overwhelming percent of heterosexual and homosexual priests control their sexual inclination for the love of God and neighbor and abide faithfully by their vows of celibacy....and are good priests.

> Some heterosexual or homosexual priests break their vow of celibacy and have sexual relations with members of the same sex and opposite sex. Some sexual abuse children and adults.

I believe the words "deep-seated" sexual inclinations mean that the person cannot control their sexual inclinations in order to serve God as a priest, and thus should not be admitted into seminaries. For those who are priests and cannot abide by their vows of celibacy should resign from the priesthood or be defrocked. The problem with the sexual abuse crisis is not rooted in those priests who are homosexual. It is rooted in sexual immorality, immaturity, a lack of control and inability of being faithful to their vows of celibacy and God's commandments, that is fueled by a culture of clericalism.

F C
1 week ago

Michael Barberi
You've hit the nail squarely on the head - way better than I'm able. Thanks so much and God Bless You.

Javier von Sydow
6 days 16 hours ago

"“The critical issue here is that people’s sexual orientation, from a psychological view and a risk-factor view in terms of the clergy abuse crisis, is irrelevant,” Dr. Plante says. " I totally disagree with doctor Plante's quoted comment about the relevancy of sexual orientation. This would be totally relevant to this subject matter if we were talking about pedophilia, another sexual orientation. We really need to delve deep into what has happened with psychology as a science for 70 years. Psychology, since it was established as a medical science by Dr. Freud -a neurologist- has considered homosexuality a psychological disorder. If you look to the numbers, this would certainly appear to be the case as objectively portrayed in the latest US Census reflecting a population that acknowledges to having this condition at only between 3 to 4% of the U.S. population and therefore the exception confirms the rule.
However, in the 70's (between 1970 and 1973) there was a very activist push to remove this condition as a disorder from the APA diagnostic manual and after three continuous years of direct intervention by vociferous activist groups in the APA's congresses, the professional Association decided to give up and remove the disorder under pressure. This is a fact. There was no elaborate study and report previous to the removal but rather just mere political reaction to direct action. Anybody can go and check it out for themselves. Thus, in effect what ended up happening was that the patient had negotiated successfully his diagnosis with the treating physician! This is just crazy and wouldn't have been accepted in any other scientific field. The head of the APA at the time moved to remove it on his own volition after this sequence of direct actions during those three years. When the members protested this then it was set to a vote of the members... Mind you, a vote! Not specific studies commissioned for the purpose, nor actual scientific reporting or peer-to-peer reviews! None of that. It has been affirmed and is a matter of research that the activist group moving for the removal of the diagnosis was allowed to circulate a letter that was presented in disguised terms as to who had generated it, leaving members to believe that it was a recommendation from the leadership of the APA, which then led to the affirmative vote of the members of the APA to finally remove the diagnosis from the manual. This can be investigated by anybody who has access to Google. So whIle we are reminded to be loving and understanding, inclusive and merciful, we are not allowed to forego truth. Because truth is Jesus himself. The doctor's affirmation in this article comes to very vividly and graphically explain the Pope's expression about this condition being "fashionable". This is something you get to see more however in the political field, where people without much research or understanding of all of these things are acting moved by gauging tendencies and currents. So which one is the truth? Is homosexuality a psychological disorder or not? Certainly it has not been associated with any physical condition or Gene. So which one is it? Would determining this be important to dealing with it?
Because if this is indeed a psychological disorder and we are not treating it, what sort of good are we doing to those that have it? And what if those that are beginning to show the condition in the earliest years are not allowed to be treated? How can anything good come out of a lie? In California, this is the only condition for which the prohibition against medical treatment has to be put in the Business and Professional Code, instead of simply being an undisputed medical fact. What sort of medical fact has to be legislatively imposed? I don't see that for surgeries or prescription medicine. This is the only diagnosis for which there is a straight and direct prohibition to treat. It does tell me for sure that the prohibition of the treatment for the condition is a political and ideological fact, not a medical one.

Stan Zorin
6 days 14 hours ago

Once in a while, our dear Pope seems to be lucid and his words make sense. Some people, like the author of this article, are utterly perplexed by the phenomenon and so they call this episode of Pope's common sense "controversial'.

Mark M
5 days 22 hours ago

The fog of Jesuit-speak which the bishop of Rome chooses to employ will never bring this issue to a close. By design, of course.
The states attorneys general see it differently, however. The A/Gs intend to make mincemeat of any Catholic bishop they can get their hands on. It’s happening already.
Francis likely does not understand or care about what was unleashed when he stopped the voting in Baltimore. Bet on it.

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2 days 12 hours ago

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james william
2 days 12 hours ago

I am James William from Portland Oregon United State.It has always been my desire to help people out with their problems no matter how little my contribution may be.

I also want to use this medium to keep to the promise i made to BABA ARUOSA that if he could help me get back my girlfriend i'll spread his good works all over for everyone to be hopeful and confident that any problem they are faced with in their relationship/marriage has come to an end because there is solution to that problem.

I was faced with a heart breaking relationship problem with my girlfriend. i was in a relationship with my girl for more than 2 years and we already made plans we were going to get married. suddenly she started acting differently and get upset at everything i do. our relationship got real nasty and she told me she wasn't interested in me anymore. she said she does not love me anymore. i didn't know all this were happening because she was seeing a new guy until i found out.I kept on pleading with her to accept me back because i was so in love and my life revolved around her.i tried every possible means to change her mind all to no avail.

Things got bad for me because We were working in the same company so i get to see her always.i was in severe pain because our love life was so sweet before things got messy.This pain continued until i spoke with a close friend of mine who out of pity led me to a great spell caster called BABA ARUOSA whom he told me was extremely powerful and has helped him with a problem.

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Stan Chaz
2 days 9 hours ago

Unfortunately, homophobia has never left the Catholic Church. I remember how long it took the New York City Council in the 80's to pass anti-discrimination laws that protected gays - because of the fierce opposition of Church leaders at that time. This pope fooled some people with his "who am I too judge" comments of a few years ago, but the homophobia of the Church remains in full force. Gay people have no more difficulty in remaining celibate than straight people. What they can NOT do is not to be gay--their so-called "tendency" as the pope so cruelly calls it. Love for others takes many forms, both celibate and not. To single gays out for such ostracism and exclusion -even if they are celibate- is shameful and ignorant discrimination. It also shows how little this pope know of the world, or his fellow man. Think of how a young gay boy or girl feels when he hears someone like the pope condemning his very existence with such insensitive and ultimately immoral & un-Christlike comments. How many more tortured lives and prejudice and suicides will you encourage and cause Pope Francis? To paraphrase your prior ingenuous comments : who are you to judge? ALL men and women are
created equal.
For a critique of the pope and his comments from a Catholic gay lesbian see online episode 33 (12/10/2018) of the Late Night With Seth Meyers show on WNBC ( from about the 3 to the 7 minute segment). She's angry, and rightly so....

Tim O'Leary
1 day 8 hours ago

Stan - I watched the anti-Catholic hit piece you recommended, essentially associating Pope Francis with the KKK or Trump - solely because of his Catholic views. That is bigotry, pure and simple, as it was meant to demean and ridicule Christian teaching, and the vicar of Christ, The Christian teaching, following the Scriptures and millennia of revealed moral truths, is preached to bring salvation. That is its motivation, which in itself has no bigoted or "homophobic" motivation. It is motivated to rescue sinners from their sins. A minority of people have been experiencing SSA throughout history. As the APA and the Church acknowledge, it's etiology is not fully elucidated. But, it is only in recent decades that advocates have called this SSA by the name gay, and even more recently has become a thing of pride, even to be paraded about. That fits the definition of "fashionable." Recent polls have shown a doubling of people identifying as bisexual. This isn't new biology, but a fashion for sexual experimentation.

Also, the empirical data point to a preponderance of homosexual sex abuse of minors and young adults, way out of proportion to the number of homosexuals or bisexuals in society or the priesthood. It has caused terrible suffering, even suicides and PTSD. Thirdly, just as it doesn't help heterosexual priests be celibate by having them live with nuns, a priest with SSA should not live with men. For that reason alone, it is much more difficult for homosexuals to be celibate.

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