Are You Better Off One Year After "Who Am I to Judge?"

Pope Francis

It has been a year since Pope Francis uttered those famous words which inspired so much hope in those Catholics who work, hope, and pray for LGBT equality and justice: “Who am I to judge?”  So, now a question for LGBT Catholics and their supporters: “Are you better off than you were one year ago?”

Spoken on his plane ride home from World Youth Day in Brazil, the pope’s rhetorical question was stated in regard to gay priests.  But, as the year has worn on, many people began to see that the attitude expressed in those words reflected a new spirit in the papacy, especially with regard to LGBT issues.

That interpretation was confirmed when just little over a month later, Pope Francis, in a remarkably candid personal interview, said that church leaders should not be so “obsessed” with “abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.”

The papacy’s new spirit was evidenced by the fact that throughout the year there seemed to be a lowering of the rhetoric that came from the Vatican in regard to same-gender marriage and LGBT people.  In Pope Francis’ statements about marriage there was a refreshing absence of references to the threat of marriage being redefined.  Indeed, a number of prelates, including Vatican officials, began speaking about the possibility of support for legalized civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Moreover, in the fall, it became public that the pope had written to Kairos, an LGBT Catholic group in Florence, Italy, in response to their letter to him.  And at the end of the year  the pope’s Jesuit parish in Rome even provided a free funeral for a homeless transgender woman when her family rejected her body.

All of this good news was magnified by the announcement in the later autumn that the pope was calling a synod of bishops to discuss marriage and family topics.  Better yet, the Vatican was encouraging bishops to survey the laity about their perspectives on this matter.  Indeed, a question about pastoral care of same-gender couples was listed as one of the issues on which the Vatican wanted lay input.

But to get back the original question:  “Are you better off than you were one year ago?”

For some, lingering question persisted throughout all the media hype surrounding Pope Francis’ approach:  Was all of this just window dressing?  Was this just a “kinder, gentler” Vatican that was still promoting the same negative message regarding LGBT people and issues?  When were the real changes going to happen? Style is one thing, but substance is another.

Over the past year, I’ve mentioned several times that I think that Pope Francis may not be ready to make big changes, but that he seems to be paving the way for such change in the future.  I still think that is true.  But, I’ve also come to think of these symbolic gestures by the pope in a new way lately.  I think that what he is trying to do is to send up some “test balloons” to see how people react to them.

I think the fact that so many bishops have spoken out in favor of civil unions or have had positive things to say about same-gender couples are proofs that the reactions have been somewhat good.  In fact, I’ve noticed that strongly negative statements about same-gender marriage now seem more the exception than the rule.

I admit, however, that American bishops have certainly not been the ones in the forefront of any positive trends.  We here in the United States still have to wait for some more positive changes in the episcopacy here.  San Francisco’s Archbishop Cordileone spoke at the March for Marriage in June, despite calls that he stay away from an event with many anti-gay sponsors.  The U.S. bishops opposed Obama’s executive order barring federal contractors from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual identity and gender expression.  Prelates like Philadelphia’s Archbishop Chaput and Springfield, Illinois’ Bishop Paprocki made some egregious statements regarding marriage.  In the U.S., we still have a long way to go in terms of better leadership on LGBT issues from our nation’s bishops.

But, of course, bishops are not the entire church.  We’ve also witnessed amazing demonstrations of LGBT support from Catholics this year, especially from younger Catholics who have had LGBT teachers fired from their schools.  We’ve seen Catholic politicians come out in strong support of marriage equality and gender identity non-discrimination.  One Illinois lawmaker even quoted Pope Francis when she expressed here support for that state’s marriage equality law.  Throughout the year, we’ve seen an incredible surge of LGBT support on the part of rank and file Catholics.  And many of them have been made more bold and optimistic because of Pope Francis’ statements and gestures.   Even non-Catholics like Edie Windsor, whose marriage equality case was successful at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 and the editors of Time magazine  and The Advocate feel more positively toward the pope.

So, we still have a long way to go, but we should pause for a moment to reflect on how far we have come.

“Are you better off than you were one year ago?”

For me, the answer is “yes!”

(What’s your answer?  Post your response to that question in the “Comments” section of this post.)

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry







4 replies
  1. Ned Flaherty
    Ned Flaherty says:

    The Pope may be off to an auspicious start, but the American bishops remain unchanged.

    Cardinals and bishops in other nations may be evolving, but U.S. bishops are not.

    The Vatican wants input from laity, but the American bishops do not.

    The 2014 Synod might review laity concerns from other nations, but it will remain deaf and blind to input from American Catholics, because U.S. bishops withheld the surveys, fabricated the answers, and sent the falsified responses to the Vatican, instead of real answers from real people.

    The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops separates the laity from the pontiff.

    In this environment, no one is “better off.”

  2. Larry
    Larry says:

    Yes. While I am very strongly suspicious of the hierarchy, especially the American bishops, I feel a sense of hope.

  3. Anton
    Anton says:

    This is a story my grandfather told me and one that I would like to pass on to my grandchildren. Grandfather Isaac said it was the beginning of how he learned to think for himself.
    He lived, at the time of the story, in a thatched-roof house in a shtetl in Poland, with his parents and his aunt Fanny. They were poor, naturally, but they had food. For Isaac it was never enough. Growing rapidly from the time he was eleven years old, he was always hungry. During the week the food was very plain, but on Fridays his mother usually managed something extra. On this particular Friday she was preparing cholent (a bean stew) with a good piece of meat. The aroma filled the house, making him restless. He couldn’t concentrate on his studies, his chores. He was intoxicated by the cooking smells.
    Walking around outside, tossing stones into a bucket, he heard his mother scream. He rushed into the house. His mother was ringing her hands, asking God to forgive her. Aunt Fanny looked stunned. She had been cooking rice and milk. Mother had accidentally taken the milk spoon to stir the cholent. Mixing dairy and meat is strictly forbidden according to the laws of kashrut.
    Isaac was afraid his mother, a pious woman, would throw away the cholent. He begged her to sit and be patient. He would go to the rabbi and ask for his advice. Although not agile, he ran the two miles in record time and blurted out the story to the rebbetzin (the rabbi’s wife). She listened respectfully but said he would have to ask the rabbi, as this was too important for her to handle.
    It seemed forever until the rabbi arrived, buttoning his trousers. Isaac retold the story. The rabbi asked him such questions as “In what direction was the spoon facing? What time of day did it happen?” Questions that my grandfather, even at his young age of eleven, decided were foolish and irrelevant. Impatient as he was, he answered to the best of his ability.
    Finally, the rabbi asked him how old he was. When he said he was eleven, the rabbi said he was too young, not yet a man, to deal with a matter of such importance. “Go home and tell your mother or father to see me about this,” he told Isaac.
    Isaac arrived home half-dead from exhaustion and anxiety. His mother asked him, “What did the rabbi say?”
    He answered, “The rabbi said, ‘Throw away the spoon and eat the stew.’”
    He had decided, at that young age, that some rules were impractical and useless and that in this matter he would rely on himself to decide what was appropriate.

    Told by Matilde Friedman in “Because God Loves Stories”, edited by Steve Zeitlin (New York: Touchstone, 1997) p. 104.

    An inspiring story!!

  4. Friends
    Friends says:

    Re: “What’s Your Answer”? My two cents’ worth:

    1. We love this Pope! He’s the best thing the RCC has seen since Pope St. John XXIII.

    2. These American bishops are some sort of evolutionary throwback, if not an outright evolutionary mutation. Nobody who loves Lord Jesus, His teachings, His Gospel promises to us, and His exortation to “Love one another, as I have loved you”, needs to take what these clueless American bishops say with any seriousness at all. They have completely lost all credibility — while the German bishops (and Pope Francis, and a number of South American bishops) are showing their resonance with Divine Guidance.

    3. “The Lord knows his own”! Enshrine that motto in your heart, and have no fear.


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