When we last left Pope Francis I, he was flying over the Atlantic saying, “If a person is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him?” With his feet on the ground in Rome, in a wide-ranging interview in the Jesuit magazine America, he took that new tone on gay issues to what many are calling a new level.
[Editor's note: Just hours after this story was posted, news broke of the Vatican excommunicating an Australian priest for his views on marriage equality and women priests and of Providence College in Rhode Island rescinding a speaking invitation to a marriage equality advocate.]
The interview earned high praise from some LGBT and progressive groups, but others –– significantly, on both the right and the left –– emphasized that not one iota of Church doctrine on sexuality issues has changed. Still, some longtime Church critics believe the pope is laying the groundwork for substantial reform.
In the interview, Francis said, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”
Francis acknowledged that he had been “reprimanded” from within the Church for not talking more about stopping abortion and same-sex marriage, issues that seem to obsess the men from the College of Cardinals who elected him pope. In response, Francis said, “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. We have to find a new balance. Otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, the LGBT Catholic group, said in a release that her group and its “allies will rejoice in the pope’s call for Church leaders to focus on being pastors rather than rule enforcers. We hope that the bishops will heed this call and immediately end their anti-LGBT campaigns, the firings of Church workers for who they are, the attacks on people who challenge or question official teachings, and the exclusive and judgmental rhetoric that comes too often from our pulpits. The pope is unambiguous. Leave the bully pulpit, and accompany your people.”
Duddy-Burke told Gay City News, “I have read the full statement. There’s an awful lot in there. This pope intends to take the Church in some very new directions.”
She added, “The pope’s comments on women show underdeveloped thinking about women. He talks about a new theology, but doesn’t give a new sense of direction. There is no change on women’s issues. No change on gay relationships. It is not a policy change document.”
Father Bernard Lynch, an out gay Catholic priest and activist expelled last year from his religious order for his gay activism, led Dignity New York’s heroic AIDS ministry in the worst days of the epidemic in the 1980s. From his home in London, he wrote, “I, too, have read with an open and joyful heart what the pope has said. He certainly puts the person before the principle of Church teaching. This is a welcome change. Much, much more needs to be done to undo the hurt and harm of the last decades of unmitigated hostility toward LGBTQI people.
“For our brothers and sisters who died of HIV/ AIDS at the height of the pandemic –– assaulted on their death beds by Vatican teachings –– it makes no difference. They are with God. Those of us who ministered to them must insist reparation be made. Apologize Holy Father on behalf of the Church for the destruction of souls and bodies. Change the inhuman and un-Christian teachings immediately. Help with Vatican wealth those friends and lovers –– still wounded –– who try to live and love after them.”
Some Catholics think substantial reform is coming. Sister Carol Zinn, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization of Catholic nuns that was essentially put on probation by Pope Benedict XVI for not speaking out against abortion and gays to his liking, told the New York Times that what “we’re seeing is an incredible change in atmosphere, it’s amazing. And when you have change in the atmosphere, it’s amazing what kinds of things can unfold. Because of the commitment he has to a discerning way of life, I think we are going to see changes, because discernment brings changes.”
A release from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force quoted Reverend Pat Bumgardner, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, saying, “I am sure that many will be very excited by the interview and the ‘progressive’ nature of the pope's comments. For me, I pray that the pope's courage in speaking to the inclusivity of God's love will inspire the practice of such love. Love is not a feeling; it is a way of life in the Gospel. To proclaim a closed door with regard to women's ordination weakens any hint of openness to LGBT people overall. Where misogyny lingers, there, too, does homophobia reside.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, New York’s bumptious archbishop and the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, used the venues of several morning TV shows to try to have it both ways.
“This man is batting a thousand,” he said on CBS. “We wanted a man who had a heart, we wanted a man who could teach like Jesus, we wanted a man who could get us back to the essentials of the Church.”
Dolan hastened to add, however, “The way he’s doing it is so fresh and is so captivating, but he’s not really changing anything of the essence of the Church.”
Dolan and his fellow bishops are leading a fight to kill the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in Congress, despite the fact that it has a controversial religious exemption clause that goes beyond discrimination permissible toward other protected classes such as race and gender and is condemned as overbroad by gay leaders such as Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry and James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Rights Project. The bishops want even more of an exemption.
Equally Blessed, a pro-equality coalition of Catholic groups including Dignity, is opposed to the religious exemption currently in ENDA and on September 16 wrote to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, saying, “Giving religious leaders such wide latitude in the hiring practices of educational, health, and social service institutions could make it difficult for LGBT people in those fields to earn a living and support their families in significant swaths of the country.”
Even as Francis urges bishops to be on the ground working with and listening to their people, Dolan has ignored repeated requests from DignityUSA for a dialogue. A call to the Archdiocese of New York asking if that might change in the wake of the pope’s recent pronouncements was not returned, and Dignity’s Duddy-Burke is not expecting immediate change.
“That Dolan and other Church leaders are trying to minimize the impact of what the pope said is not surprising because he is slapping them,” she said. “The impact of the pope’s words has to be carried out at the local level.”
US bishops have a long way to go. Just last week, Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt gave a long theological talk that included the observation that the “source” of gay sexuality was “The Father of Lies,” Satan.
Bill Donohue, the acerbic, anti-gay head of the right-wing Catholic League, said in a release: “Francis is a reformer, he is not a revolutionary… His style and tone are different, but he shares with John Paul II and Benedict XVI the same doctrinal positions and the same vision of the Catholic Church.”
Donohue then took on pro-equality Catholics who claim the pope is moving in their direction.
“Some conservatives are in mourning,” he wrote. “They shouldn’t be. Some liberals are popping the cork. They shouldn’t be. Knee-jerk reactions are typically a function of ignorance, and that’s what we are witnessing. It would be so refreshing if people actually read what the pope said.”
Indeed, at a gathering of Catholic gynecologists the day after the America interview appeared, Francis moved to reassure doctrinal conservatives by saying that abortion was part of a “throwaway culture.” He said, “Every child that isn't born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord.”
Still, in the America interview, Francis said, “This Church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”