Pope Francis and the Gay Elephant in the Room

Pope Francis and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina

Pope Francis made sensational news aboard his return flight to Rome following a rousing celebration of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – his first foreign voyage as Bishop of Rome. In a press conference held during the trip, Francis spoke candidly on a variety of hot-button issues facing the worldwide Catholic Church. However, one question posed, and the response offered by the pope, would remain cemented in the minds and hearts of numerous intrigued observers across the globe.

A reporter questioned the pontiff about the veracity of a rumored “gay lobby” of prelates that supposedly wields considerable influence within the walls of the Vatican. Much noise has been about this assertion throughout the news media and a variety of other credible, informed sources.

Pope Francis responded candidly by stating, “There’s a lot of talk about the gay lobby. But I’ve never seen it on the Vatican ID card. 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 are our brothers.”

The profound implications of this statement must be analyzed realistically. No pope, at least while serving as Bishop of Rome, has ever issued a statement that even acknowledges the existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered persons — apart from their role as being opaquely depicted as the malevolent enemies of “marriage” and “the family”. Whenever members of the institutional hierarchy refer to LGBT persons they address them not as fellow human beings, but as being “disordered” or afflicted with “same-sex attraction”, hopelessly lost and mired in their conscious sinful behaviors.

In a mere statement, Pope Francis essentially cast aside decades of negatively configured paradigms of fear regarding LGBT persons that have masqueraded as having a legitimate theological basis. By utilizing a word that most gay and lesbian persons in the twenty-first century have embraced as one that satisfactorily defines their sexual identity, the pope has chosen to wade into the debate over homosexuality from a positive, diplomatic point of reference rather than one of presumed judgment or condemnation.

In the midst of the rapturous reception to Francis’ historic declaration, many commentators rightly observed that nothing the pope had said, in any meaningful way, changed existing theological interpretations by the institutional church regarding gay and lesbian persons. In her latest NCR column, Jamie Manson underlines this fact, highlighting that Francis was responding to the reporter’s question about gay clergy in the Vatican. She further emphasizes that this is the only context in which the pope’s surprisingly tolerant remarks towards gay persons can be understood – when applied to celibate, gay clergy, following the Catechism’s directives concerning their orientation. She concludes her reflections by pondering whether Catholics anxious for reform and renewal can ever expect concrete actions to arise on the part of Pope Francis, and whether his overtly positive language has merely been pastoral window-dressing, devoid of any concerted efforts taken in the direction of meaningful reform.

Such an extremely cautious approach to Francis’ new papacy is understandable. In fact, it is a view firmly rooted in reality, not only of the circumstances occurring within the institutional church today, but of what has consistently transpired for the past three decades. However, the span of time during which Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio lead the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires offers a perplexing ingredient that has never before been present in the life of one who has ascended to such a high position in the institutional church.

The proposition of expanding the legally sanctioned designation of marriage to include same-sex couples was deliberated in the pope’s native Argentina in 2010. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner fervently supported the legislative initiative. Cardinal Bergoglio, as the preeminent prelate in the nation and leader of the Argentine bishops’ conference, vociferously denounced the civic effort as “destructive pretension against the plan of God.” 

Despite his fiery rhetoric surrounding the issue in public, the cardinal’s behaviors conducted privately painted a very different picture of how his own character prompted him to approach this volatile topic in personal terms – as a human being relating to fellow human beings. In a meeting with the entire gathered assembly of the Argentine bishops conference, as it became increasingly clear that passage of the bill legalizing marriage equality was a matter of inevitability rather than probability, Cardinal Bergoglio suggested that the bishops endorse civil unions for committed gay and lesbian couples.

This legal notion has been categorically dismissed in the political realm as being a “cop-out” measure. However, a prelate who advocated for this solution, as a member of an ancient institution that is universally derided as one of the world’s remaining bastions of unbridled homophobia, could transmit a poignant message to wider society.

The Vatican’s theological stance on who merits “the institution of marriage” and its interpretations of human sexuality have been cemented in an archaic, “natural law” approach for centuries. The perception that romantic relationships, and all sexual relations, are ultimately oriented toward procreation has been the driving catalyst in the Catholic hierarchy’s intransigent position on this matter. In 2003, as an increasing number of countries were creating legal accommodations for same-sex unions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the leadership of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) released a document that opposed even the proposal of civil unions as a compromise tactic to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage, stating,

“Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil. In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.”

Thus, Cardinal Bergoglio’s modulated stance on the subject of gay rights represents a significant departure from the Vatican’s absolute denunciation of any efforts to extend legal protection to same-sex couples in committed relationships. Even if he was required to publicly oppose legislative initiatives to enact marriage equality in Argentina as the leading member of the Catholic Church in the nation, the Jesuit cardinal’s pastoral sensitivity enabled him to comprehend that this strife not only dealt with abstract legal guarantees, but also the fate of, and the personal dynamics that colored the realities of intensely dedicated relationships between human beings.

Throughout this tense period, Cardinal Bergoglio maintained a behind-the-scenes atmosphere of dialogue and tolerance. Marcelo Márquez, a gay rights activist and theologian, detailed how he wrote Argentina’s senior cleric a heartfelt letter about his own personal views on the legalization of same-sex marriage and how the pending legislation impacted his life directly. Shortly thereafter, Márquez remembers receiving a phone call and was shocked to hear the cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires on the other end of the line. Márquez described a cordial conversation that he enjoyed with the cardinal, in which Bergoglio affirmed the need for gay and lesbian couples to be able to have defined, legal rights in the civic sphere, but refused supporting marriage in a court of law.

While this reasoning may appear pathetically flawed and condescending to many, it is a tangibly dramatic shift in the Catholic hierarchy’s treatment of LGBT persons. During all of these secluded communications carried out by Cardinal Bergoglio, the emphasis was not placed on denigrating an individual’s sexual orientation as being “disordered”, or classifying their relationships as “living in sin.” This pragmatic, empirical approach reflects a desire, on the part of Bergoglio, to bridge the gap between official theological precepts and the lives of real people, who feel, who love, and seek happiness together. Even if theological demands constrained the cardinal, precluding him from supporting marriage equality for LGBT couples, Jorge Bergoglio’s actions reveal his deep sense of pastoral compassion, and his wish to ensure that gay and lesbian persons were treated humanely. Essentially, a prelate who advocates for civil unions implies that LGBT relationships are not worthless occasions of sin, but rather, meaningful covenants of love filled with devotion; deserving of legal protection and respect. Interacting with gay and lesbian persons in this manner ensures that human dignity, and not one’s orientation, becomes the lens through which all ensuing conversations are conducted.

Ultimately, Bergoglio’s pitch of moderation was rejected by his fellow clerics. An overwhelming majority of the Argentine bishops conference voted against the proposal regarding the church’s theoretical support of civil unions. Still, the nation would move forward to legalize marriage equality, the first in Latin America to do so. Currently, as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis possesses the unique status of being the first pope ever elected from a country that has legalized same-sex marriage.

Such a distinction has most certainly not been forgotten within the recesses of Pope Francis’ heart. If he has sincerely brought a renewed sense of pastoral awareness to Rome regarding gay rights, it would bode well for the pope to continue to employ a characteristic he has displayed since the world first learned of his election — namely, that actions speak louder than words.

It would be very heartening to witness the pope meet publicly with a group of LGBT Catholics, or an internationally renowned LGBT advocacy organization. Such a gathering, held in a human rights context, would not necessarily need to signal an immediate overhaul in doctrinal interpretation. Yet, the visible, symbolic image of the Bishop of Rome, physically meeting with LGBT persons, not condemning them, but relating to them as fellow creations of God, would convey a powerful message of hope to the world. Affirming the equal, human dignity of those who comprise the LGBT community would not require Pope Francis to endorse marriage equality. Given his spontaneously charismatic personality, it isn’t hard to imagine the pope visiting a Pride event, not to preach, but to listen, to commune, and to enter into solidarity with those who have been so marginalized and wounded by the hierarchy’s vertically judgmental pronouncements on homosexuality.

A further, more convincing gesture, would be for Francis to use his global pulpit as pope to condemn nations that have harshly criminalized homosexuality as a penal offense. In some cases, these draconian measures have stipulated capital punishment as the most severe sentence used in combating the perceived “abnormality” of one’s sexual orientation. Uganda has infamously set in motion its unique version of an Anti-Homosexuality Bill, more commonly referenced as the “Kill the Gays Bill.” Initiated in 2009, with the fervent support of American Evangelical Christian allies, the bill would have made being gay or lesbian an offense punishable by death. After international pressure, this heinous provision has since been removed, but the pending legislation still contains a section that contains a category for “aggravated homosexuality” – this distinction is defined as engaging in homosexual sex more than three times, or doing so while HIV-positive. These acts, if discovered, could garner lifetime imprisonment. Moreover, one could potentially be incarcerated for up to three years if they had knowledge that a person was gay or lesbian but refused to submit this information to law enforcement authorities. The nations of Malawi, Cameroon, Liberia, and Nigeria have all crafted or passed similar pieces of legislation. In comparison to so many regions throughout the world where the tide in the gay rights movement seems to be turning significantly for the better, on the African continent, attitudes have become defensively entrenched and obstinate. Russia’s parliament has also passed an onerously anti-gay piece of legislation, which makes it a crime to spread any information deemed as “propaganda” that promotes homosexuality. In this latter instance, the bill’s passage was ensured in large part due to the pervasive cultural influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

If Pope Francis took the opportunity to address any of these deplorable human rights situations, and highlighted the fact that all of these cases violate a whole host of Articles contained in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world would take note of the pope’s words. In this instance, the pope would be reiterating church teaching, the Catechism itself states LGBT persons, “…must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Francis would not have to wade into the controversial topic of the morality of same-sex unions, but simply denounce the atrocity of unjust laws that punish individuals simply for who they are. Perhaps then, with the admonition of the pope, countries that have ignored global pressure to reconsider such blatantly oppressive statutes might be influenced to re-evaluate or, eventually, repeal them. The knowledge that certain nations are nonchalant, recidivistic perpetrators of human rights abuses carries with it a powerful effect.

A final area – perhaps the most meaningful venue – in which Pope Francis could address homosexuality would be within the Catholic Church. A highly lamentable phenomenon in the United States has been the unwarranted termination of employees of Catholic institutions once their sexual orientation is discovered. Regrettably, this trend has only escalated in frequency since Francis’ election. Ken Bencomo, an English teacher at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Los Angeles, California, was abruptly terminated from his position at the school after an article was found in a local newspaper detailing his recent marriage to his husband. Bencomo had been a member of the faculty at St. Lucy’s for seventeen years. He was extremely beloved by the student body. Protests by students, parents, and other faculty members have erupted in the wake of the unpopular decision. Bencomo was certainly not the first casualty of this cycle, but is only its most recent victim. As an increasing number of states have legalized marriage equality, the institutional church has reacted with bitterness and spite, seizing any method it can to deny acknowledging gays and lesbians as equal members of society. Citing the fact that openly gay teachers (in civil marriages, partnerships, or relationships) are intentionally disobeying church teaching is a convenient ploy utilized to justify these discriminatory actions. The cases of heterosexual teachers who have been fired because they are divorced and remarried, or living in long-term unmarried relationships have rarely, if ever, been documented. Obviously, a palpable ecclesial double standard is at work. If Pope Francis actively directed his bishops to ensure that such homophobic practices ceased in dioceses throughout the world, much of the Catholic Church’s credibility that has been damaged in recent years could be gradually restored.

During World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, an empowered coalition of six pilgrims joined the throngs of other fervent, young, Catholics. Megan Graves, Lauren Carpenter, Delfin Bautista, Sara Kelley, Ellen Euclide, and Jennifer Guterman journeyed to Brazil as representatives of a spectrum of progressive Catholic organizations known as Equally Blessed. These resolute emissaries courageously made their way to World Youth Day to serve as living witnesses of justice, compassion, and dignity within the church. The radical cosmic powers of focused intention, conscious presence, and prayerful solidarity should not be underestimated. Who knows, if these six heralds of the Gospel had not been in attendance at this World Youth Day celebration whether Pope Francis would have felt compelled to confront the subject of gay persons during his press conference aboard the papal plane? Their prophetic convictions should inspire all of us. Each one of us, wherever we are, can be catalysts advocating for a renewed vision of Catholicism. As evidenced by the Equally Blessed World Youth Day coalition, enlightenment and dialogue is most effective and cathartic when carried out on a grassroots level.

Substantive doctrinal change within the Catholic Church will not occur over night. Nor can such reforms be expected to be championed by members of its institutional hierarchy. However, if Pope Francis sincerely changed the tone of the church, through public declarations and concerted actions, perhaps more Catholics would feel motivated to be agents of change and renewal. The apostle Paul described the universal Church as a Body containing many parts. Each part is different, and each organ has been blessed with a unique role and calling. If Pope Francis stays consistently resolved to changing existing attitudes within the institutional church regarding LGBT persons he could come to be known as the first-ever pope who embraced the truth that gay rights are human rights. But the required energy and advocacy to ensure that this truth is reflected in Catholic doctrinal expressions can only come to fruition through our own, unique, individual efforts. If Francis has initiated the pastoral blueprint, we must complete and erect the lasting spiritual edifice.

2 thoughts on “Pope Francis and the Gay Elephant in the Room

  1. An excellent reflection. I agree with you that perhaps the most we can expect from Pope Francis is a change in “tone” around certain issues in the Church — but isn’t it this very tone that has made GLBTQ people feel so unwelcome for so many years? Changing that is no small concession, even though, as you say, it does not enact theological change. Perhaps the tone has been so discriminatory for so many years precisely because there’s an implicit understanding that moving toward greater compassion and inclusion, seeing GTLBQ people as deserving of equal rights and dignity, brings into sharp relief the unjust discrimination they face — including within the Church’s theology.

  2. Pingback: Friday Round-Up: 8/23/13 | Catholic Majority

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