Have We Painted Pope Francis’ Gay Comments Too Optimistically?

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

This week has been a heady one, with hopes and dreams of a more LGBT-inclusive church running high, thanks to Pope Francis’ remarks in his airplane press conference on the way back from Brazil.  We’ve tried to give you a variety of points of view on this news story, and you can read our previous samplings here and here.

Today, we are offering some more challenging perspectives than we have previously.  They are perspectives which are critical of Pope Francis’ statements, but what makes them particularly challenging is that they comes from people who are progressive Catholics who work for reform in the church along more liberal lines.   Both of these commentators are people who I think of as sharp church observers, so I think it is important to take their opinions into consideration.  After summarizing their arguments, I will offer my own opinion, and I hope that you will offer YOUR opinions in the “Comments” section of this post.

Jamie Manson

Jamie Manson

Jamie Manson, a columnist for The National Catholic Reporter, sums up her critique of the pope’s statements and people’s responses in the headline question: “When does our hope for Francis become denial?”   Manson examines the pope’s LGBT comments in the context of the full press conference where he also denied the possibility of ordaining women, and spoke about pastoral care for divorced and remarried Catholics.  The gist of her critique is in the bulleted section of her essay, excerpted here:

  • “In terms of his much-touted use of the word “gay,” I believe he used it not so much as a sign of respect but because the word was being used in the context of the rumored “gay lobby.” Few people still know what this mysterious lobby inside the Curia is or what precisely they are advocating for (clearly it isn’t LGBT rights), but Francis was again clear he was not pleased with this lobby, saying he needed to distinguish whether a person was gay or part of the gay lobby.
  • “After Francis delivered his now-legendary “Who am I to judge?” line, he immediately reaffirmed the teaching of the catechism. He may not have used the “intrinsically disordered” phrase, but he did make it clear that “the tendency isn’t the problem.” Obviously, same-sex acts and same-sex marriage still are the problem. The real question I think he was asking was, “Who am I to judge a celibate gay person who seeks the Lord and is of goodwill?”
  • “While his words about a new approach to divorced and remarried Catholics were encouraging, they were couched in his mentioning that a new “pastoral care of marriage” was being developed. My sense is the main thrust of initiative will be to make the boldest Roman Catholic declaration yet that marriage is between one man and one woman. Remember that just two years ago, as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he called same-sex marriage an “anthropological setback,” and on the plane, he affirmed the church’s opposition to marriage equality.
  • “Pope Francis’ words about women were spirit-breaking. The idea that we need a “deeper theology of women” is remarkable only because, for the past half-century, Catholic women theologians, many of them women religious, have been developing, writing and teaching a profound theology of women. Just because the hierarchy has not cared to read it doesn’t mean it doesn’t already exist. I shudder to think whom Francis would ask to formulate this “deeper theology.”
  • “As a woman who has discerned a calling to the priesthood for more than 20 years, Francis’ hiding behind John Paul II’s theology and claiming that the “door is closed” on the ordination issue was profoundly painful. Hearing these words, I felt the same kind of humiliation I would have experienced if a door had literally been slammed in my face.
  • “Francis got some positive attention for saying women are more important than priests and bishops, even if they have no chance of being ordained. In essence, he said even though women will never have ecclesial decision-making power or the opportunity to exercise sacramental ministry, they are so much more special than the men who get to run and lead the church.

Manson draws from these insights the following ideas:

“Are we truly listening to the full context of what Francis is saying, or are we just hearing what our hearts most deeply want to hear? It is important to be people of hope, but at what point does being hopeful and optimistic slip into avoidance and denial of what this man truly believes? “I realize Catholics are starving for inspiring, authentic pastoral leadership, but honesty and solidarity demand that we speak out against unjust, spiritually harmful words, even if they are coming from a charismatic figure in whom we desperately want to believe and trust. “I want to be hopeful that Francis might have a transformation. Personally, my heart has a deep investment in it: I would love to be able to return to active Catholic ministry again, and I want all of the exceptional women and LGBT Catholics who have the ability to spiritually lead and inspire to be able to answer God’s calling. . . . “But there was nothing Francis said on that plane that leads me to think we are any closer to either of these possibilities. I remain hopeful justice will come someday, but I think it is important to accept the reality that the residual effects of a patriarchal, homophobic, clerical formation can still dwell within a man who is otherwise committed to justice and deeply pastoral.”

And her conclusion:

“If we cannot be honest about what this pope believes, and if we refuse to criticize him when criticism is justified, we could run the risk of giving the Vatican public relations machine exactly what it wants: a return to the days when the pope was an object of affection, adulation and unequivocal goodwill — no questions asked.”

Jon O'Brien

Jon O’Brien

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, in an essay on The Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, is reluctant to give the mantle of “reformer” to the new pope, wondering if all the good-will exhibited are more publications than substance.  O’Brien notes:

“Catholics desperately want change in our church, and Pope Francis is being heralded inTime magazine and on almost every major network and newspaper as the one who will deliver it. But before we pronounce him the patron saint of reform, we should step back and take a critical look at whether his gestures indicate a true metamorphosis or are simply a media-friendly rhetorical shift.”

O’Brien backs up his thesis with several pieces of evidence:

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and recent actions by the new administration have a familiar taste. At two meetings at the U.N. in June, the Vatican’s representative stood up to oppose sexual and reproductive health, just as he and his predecessors have always done. Pope Francis talks of compassion for poor but has done nothing to change the hierarchy’s ban on contraception, something that would help interrupt the cycle of poverty perpetuated in developing nations where lifesaving contraception is unavailable. Time and time again, the Catholic hierarchy and its charities prevent people from accessing the means to control their own fertility. “Pope Francis may have spared us the usual lecture about abortion but we can’t expect much movement on this issue. His predecessors were more insistent in delivering the anti-choice party line, their words falling on ears that are not deaf, but belonging to individuals fully able to interpret their own consciences. Parishioners easily recognize yet another instance of celibate men who, unable to understand the reality and complexity of family life, choose to condemn so many in our church. “Pope Francis did state that he won’t judge gay people, but continues to deny them the right to express their love in the same way as do heterosexuals, with perpetual chastity seemingly the only sanctioned option for LGBT faithful. He also forgave the sins of gay clergy, knowing that the church would grind to a halt were he to make sexual orientation a litmus test for prospective priests and nuns. “But when Francis was asked about the role of women in church, and the possibility that one day the church could enjoy the gifts of ordained women, he insisted that door was closed.”

O’Brien’s conclusion:

“The doors and windows in the Vatican have been closed for a very long time. The air is stale. Faithful Catholics pray for real transformation—perhaps through Pope Francis. Wherever change comes from, one thing is clear: the winds of change need to blow through the whole church, especially the Vatican. Those few acres in Rome are the epicenter of a conservative brand of Catholicism promoted by the hierarchy that has little to do with the way everyday Catholics live and believe. The Francis-dictated fashion for plain cassocks over splendid robes notwithstanding, Catholics want a change of heart from the entrenched leadership, a revolution that would earn rank-and-file Catholics’ vote for sainthood.”

You can also view a BBC-TV  video of an interview with O’Brien in which he makes some of these points, as well as some different ones, here:

So what to make of these critiques?  In one sense, they both make an important point with which I agree:  we need to evaluate Pope Francis on his actions.   I agree that the pope’s words will be empty if he doesn’t follow up on them, and we have seen this happen recently by a church leader.  In the spring, Cardinal Timothy Dolan made headlines with a gay-positive message, but then followed it up with a tragically hurtful blog post, backing off from the statement.

Patrick Hornbeck

Patrick Hornbeck

But, in another sense, aren’t words also actions? Words do have significance, and, as many have pointed out,  the shift in tone from Benedict to Francis on has been significant.  Patrick Hornbeck, a theology professor at Fordham University, noted the word change significance in a Washington Post “On Faith” blog post titled “Pope Francis shows it’s okay to say ‘gay’.”  Hornbeck notes the significance of Pope Francis’ use of the word “gay,”  while at the same time cautioning against hopes running too high:

“It is indeed cause for celebration that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church has named a contingent of fellow human beings with the words that they have chosen to name themselves and that his predecessors often denied to them. Even though they did not occur in the context of an official Vatican statement, Pope Francis’ remarks will be warmly welcomed by the majorities of U.S. Catholics who support nondiscrimination laws, adoption by same-sex couples, and equal legal recognition for committed same-sex relationships. Let this optimism be cautious, however: the pope did not endorse any specific changes in Catholic teaching, and there is nothing in his statement that commits him to doing so in the future.

“While much work remains to be done to bring about the full equality of all citizens and believers, Monday Pope Francis  simply and empathetically named what was once considered unnameable. He thus follows in the footsteps of his most significant predecessor, who lived two millennia ago and was also known to dine with outcasts and call them by name.”

Hornbeck is right in pointing out that the pope’s comment have not changed church teaching, but what I think is important is that Francis put emphasis on the teaching that has been too infrequently taught:  the human dignity of ALL people.

Manson and O’Brien both have an important point about Pope Francis’ rejection of women’s ordination.  On Monday, when I was reading the news of the press conference,  my initial elation at the gay comment almost disappeared when I read about the pope’s ban on women’s ordination.  I felt the same way that I felt back in June when the U.S. Supreme Court’s supportive marriage equality decision came  right after their repeal of the Voting Rights Act.  In both cases, steps toward equality and justice were connected to steps backward, too.  Celebrations were certainly muted by these retrograde moves.

I appreciate the thought-provoking positions of all three of these writers.  They help me think more critically about these issues.  I still believe there is much to celebrate in the pope’s statement.  (For New Ways Ministry’s position, click here.)  But what matters most is not what has been said, but what will be done–for LGBT people and women in the Catholic Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

16 replies
  1. Lydia Lombardo
    Lydia Lombardo says:

    To be a woman is a most wonderful thing. To be denied full participation in a church into which we were born is a dispicable thing. And still many of us stay, hoping for change, working for change, praying for change while we watch our children leave the fold because they find no real understanding of their lives. We told our daughters they could be anything they wanted to be, but we lied because they cannot be anything but second-class in the church. And those children who are in good, productive second marriages cannot go to communion with their children who they continue to have baptized and make first communions and be confirmed. How sad and heartbreaking. When all the rhetoric is said in numerous publications by Catholics who desperately yearn for a reformed church, it is we mothers who cry when the church rejects our children. Ask any mother what the greatest hurt is….to a woman, they will say: seeing my children hurt and that’s what the church continues to do.

  2. Stephen Sottile
    Stephen Sottile says:

    Both commentators have stated what I have also concluded. Francis to me is all about good optics but very shallow on substance. I find the universal gushing over what he says and does Pollyana-ish at the very best of willfully blind at the worst. To me he is no different than Benedict the unworthy but for the fact that he uses better cosmetics.

  3. Joseph Gentilini
    Joseph Gentilini says:

    As I have mentioned before, I am glad that the tone of the statements regarding marriage equality, gay priests, and women is more pastoral, church teaching on these topics has not changed at all. I am hopeful but with with caution.

  4. duckman44625
    duckman44625 says:

    While Francis’ words and approach are definitely more pastoral – as a Jesuit – he is a defender of the Faith – doctrine. However, unlike his predecessor and a true Shepherd in the spirit of John Paul II, he is advocating acceptance in the Church of those who differ or perhaps disagree with Church teaching. As a gay Catholic – but more importantly – follower of Christ – I have found sanctuary in a parish which embraces me openly – our priest – openly gay but celibate (he honors his mandated vows as taken to God – not the institution) – has frequently openly – courageously defended us as fully loved by Christ – openly stating that the official Church teaching is simply “wrong”. He fully supports women as called to fully called to the priest hood by the virtue of their Baptism, thus by the Holy Spirit. Again, male Judaic tradition – not Christ – prohibits ordination.
    I am accepting of Francis as a truly humble man who is sincerely trying to heal wounds of exclusion. Do I expect him to reverse various prohibitions as mentioned – No – but I agree to disagree with official Church teachings in these matters. There comes a point in our personal relationship with Christ that we must – as a the Catechism espouses – follow our sincere consciences – even when in opposition to Church teachings – for we are obeying the Voice of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. To deny our consciences – merely act because we are mandated is “sinful”. This can be pointed to in the issue of artificial birth control – a teaching which is WRONG – ignored by the vast majority of Catholics – I believe the latest figure was well over 90% of married couples. To preach accepting children conceived merely because we are obeying Church teaching – being open to procreation every time a couple makes love is quite frankly insane. This is especially true in third world countries. Does God delight in starving children or abused children – owing to the fact that a couple with several children are stressed ? What kind of monster God do we believe in ? I had previously mentioned that I am a “follower of Christ” rather than “Christian” mainly because there are many – including our hierarchy who do not live a Christian life. They spout doctrines or interpret Scripture to suit their agendas but fail to treat others as Christ does – lovingly, mercifully, non-judgmentally. We forget this at times and I believe our bishops (exceptions of course) rarely image Christ in their efforts to herd the faithful – rather than shepherd. Francis is a Shepherd.

  5. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    I am not holding my breath regarding full participation of women as priests or gay marriage. I am too old and experienced for that. I really thought I would see women priests in my lifetime. Now I doubt it. The change Francis brings is in emphasis. Francis wants to bring the church back to social justice and big world issues. His pastoral approach is beautiful to behold. This change in tone will encourage and embolden the faithful, who know that it is discrimination to exclude women and LGBT children of God from full participation in all the sacraments. These sacraments include ordination and marriage. Francis is calling all of us to action: serve the poor, seek justice, do not judge. This is what Jesus demands of us. So the message is more Christian than ever. For most Catholics, this includes unconditional support and love for women and LGBT people. So what happens one on one “in the trenches” is often different than what the official teachings imply. It has always been thus. When I was young, the church railed against divorce, and many would shun those brave women who actually sought a legal solution to their abusive situations. However, many Catholics reached out in love and support to the divorced, ignoring “the teachings, ” instead following THE TEACHING (of Jesus). What Francis does is to provide fertile ground for this kind of unconditional love and acceptance of one another. The official teachings? Well, Vatican II are official teachings–let’s institute the changes that are required by Vatican II. That would be a great start. As Benedict tried to roll back Vatican II, I think Francis embraces Vatican II. This is a change.

    The concept that women are “extra special,” yet totally blocked from full participation is nothing new. It has worked for my entire lifetime. Keep progressives “in dialogue” with no intention of any substantive change. But as Leonard Cohen’s beautiful lyrics say,

    I can’t run no more
    with that lawless crowd
    while the killers in high places
    say their prayers out loud.
    But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
    a thundercloud
    and they’re going to hear from me.

    Ring the bells that still can ring …

    You can add up the parts
    but you won’t have the sum
    You can strike up the march,
    there is no drum
    Every heart, every heart
    to love will come
    but like a refugee.

    Francis has summoned up a thundercloud in the faithful. He may be trying to subdue the call for equality and justice by emphasizing a veneer of loving kindness. Who knows? It really does not matter when we consider what we must do. Each of us must vow to let the hierarchy “hear from us,” often and without reserve. The power of the Holy Spirit is great. The power in each of us is great. All things are possible–not by wishing for it to be so, but through an insistent demand that injustice and discrimination are not acceptable as a tenet of faith.

    As Edward Kennedy said, “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

    • duckman44625
      duckman44625 says:

      I think we may see married male ordination before female ordination. But the Church never willing is lead by the faithful even though Acts records the Apostles CLEARLY stating that THEY – the hierarchy are servants and that THEY must follow the faithful’s lead for the Holy Spirit resides with and leads the Church through them – NOT THROUGHNTHE HIERARCHY. I have long ago cast off Catholic Guilt instilled in me by Catholic education – we are all sinners – we know that – but I think the hierarchy doesn’t accept that about themselves. The mishandling of the pedophile crisis by Benedict himself and othe bishops stripped them of the unquestioning obedience by the faithful. There have been female ordinations by validly ordained bishops in New York State on the St. Lawrence River – international waters within the last several years. Despite the Church’s excommunication of all involved – new “schismatic” congregations have been borne. The Holy Spirit is alive and well – I have no doubt these ordinations were Her work – She ordained these women – called them to priesthood. Yes the Church was granted authority to shepherd but not to crush – suppress – manufacture distorted theological premises for denying ordination to ALL people who the Holy Spirit summons. MEN can not trump God – the persecution of Jews in Spain, the Inquisition’s murders of “heretics”, homosexuals and all others for political reasons beat testament that there is little “Holy” in the Church’s administration. As stated in Varican 2 – the Church is Holy through the Body of Christ Presence with His people but “sinful” owing to the acts of man.

  6. Richard Mehlinger Jr (@rmehlinger)
    Richard Mehlinger Jr (@rmehlinger) says:

    The Catholic Church is a gigantic institution, and it cannot (and arguably should not) change quickly. Francis is not likely to change the Church’s teachings on women’s ordination, or on homosexuality, or contraception. After all he is not an absolute monarch, as frequently assumed by the press, but governs as primus inter pares of the episcopate.

    BUT, what Francis can do is lay the groundwork for future change. He can change the tone with which the Church speaks. He can appoint bishops based on their pastoral abilities rather than slavish devotion to orthodoxy. He can encourage more debate within the Church. He can lead by example. He can encourage the Church to go out of itself. He may not be the winds of change, but he’s opening the windows.

    • duckman44625
      duckman44625 says:

      And that is precisely what he is doing. Just as John Paul II left a permanent footmark on the character of the Church which Benedict in his arrogance tried to reverse, Francis will accomplish a kinder Church – throwing away Benedict’s rod of iron rule. I make no apologies for my disdain for Benedict. The memory of his Pontificate will be one of un-Christlike hardheartedness.

    • duckman44625
      duckman44625 says:

      Yes…this is true but John Paul II always treated people with mercy, compassion and love. In his last years as Parkinsonian dementia took over…as evidenced by the hard line rhetoric which came from Benedict…essentially the German shepherd alienated Catholics with his rabid conservative exclusion. Benedict acted as Pope long before he was “rewarded” for his years of service by the College of Cardinals. His election was certainly political and not guided by the Holy Spirit.

  7. Jake Empereur,S.J.
    Jake Empereur,S.J. says:

    In the multiple responses to what Pope Francis said in the airplane interview, it is understandable the each respondent has their own desires regarding the reform of the church. But what makes so much of the discussion difficult is that there seems to be little agreement of what are the actual doctrines of the church in the matters of the interview. There is a profound misunderstanding how doctrines change (or perhaps better, grow and are understood more deeply). No pope simply wakes up one morning and changes what is believed to be a doctrine of the church. The history of theology shows that doctrines “change” over a period of time as a different and greater consciousness develops in the church and as there is a greater ability of the church to “as it were ‘forget’ certain formulations of the past.” That there are urgent desires and needs cannot be denied. But to judge the church according to American democratic ideals could lead some to treat doctrine in almost purely legal terms. To put it hyperbolically, it would be like having occasional votes on the various articles of the creed.

  8. Bill Welch
    Bill Welch says:

    Perhaps many of us throughout our lifetime have been anxiously awaiting to be fed, nourished, nurtured within our Catholic Church in some way as a sense of personal and spiritual fulfillment that we react ravenously to the drop of crumbs or food scraps in hope of food for the hungry. But words and change of tone without actions and relational context are not the physical and spiritual nourishment we long for.

    The words “All are welcome in this place (church)” and “at the table of communion and Eucharist” when we see the reality of exclusion, exception, conditions, and turning away of baptized Catholics on their journey guided by their formed conscience discerned and developed over their lifetime which someone claims to be lacking dogmatic truth or outside the claimed infallible or definitive teaching of the church hierarchy.

    I agree with those who call for caution rather grasping at anything that simply appears to quench our hunger and thirst but fails as enriching and lasting nourishment.

    • duckman44625
      duckman44625 says:

      Individually and together we must follow our consciences…dragging the Church kicking and screaming to true Christ like service. We do have a “weapon” – our money. Refusing to donate to the Vatican (Peter Pence) send a strong message – indicating in your Sunday offering that YOUR contribution may be used only for service to the people of God.

  9. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    Bill, I totally agree with what you wrote. There is a deep yearning to be fed, nourished, and nurtured within the Catholic church. This is the human condition and religious affiliation is supposed to address this universal yearning. The words “all are welcome in this place,” says “that which I accept for myself, I give to all.” To invite someone to the table, but to tell him to wash first (Dolan) is the antithesis of a loving embrace. To be in relationship with the Catholic church over a lifetime involves periods of deep isolation and feelings of betrayal. We must be there for one another. We must make it clear that discrimination of any kind is not OK with us. It is important to find “our people” within the church to sustain us while the Holy Spirit works through us for change.


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