As he journeys to the Philippines this week, Pope Francis will be met there by an archbishop who, like the pontiff, is opening the door to greater openness to the LGBT community. He can also listen to advice from a Filipina lesbian woman in the U.S. about what he needs to teach the Church in her native land.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, who is also president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, gave an affirmative and categorical statement to a question about whether the pope condemned the LGBT community. Villegas stated:
“Being a homosexual is not a sin. It is a state of a person.”
The archbishop’s remarks came during an interview on a television show hosted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper. The show was aired in anticipation of the pontiff’s visit to that nation between January 15th-19th. You can view the video by clicking here.
Inquirer.net reported on the interview, in which Villegas elaborated on that basic statement:
“ ‘The Pope says “The Lord came to die for all, homosexuals and lesbians included.” There is no one excluded from the saving plan of God,’ Villegas said in the forum held at the Thomas Aquinas Research Center of the University of Santo Tomas.
“The archbishop said the Church was calling on gay and lesbian believers to embrace holiness.
“ ‘God died for them also. God invites gays and the lesbians to go beyond their present situation and love Jesus,’ he added.”
In a blog post on Rappler.com, Shakira Sison, a Filipina-American lesbian woman penned an open-letter to Pope Francis as he prepares for his visit to her native country. In it, she offered advice on what messages he should give:
“I hope you’ll teach the Catholic leaders of the Philippines that faith is personal, it is salvation for those who need it. It does not judge, and it does not hate.
“Most of all, please teach our people that your version of faith does not condemn gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children from their homes or keep them from worshiping their God.
“I would like you to teach your people that the Catholic God’s love and acceptance does not pick and choose. . . .
“You said it yourself that gays must be integrated into society. I’ve lived enough and am secure enough with my life to know that my spirituality will be fine whether or not you accept me. However, there are many others like me who need for you to tell the majority of Catholics that God loves and accepts every single one of us, so they may start accepting my LGBT brothers and sisters as well.”
The Philippines is a heavily Catholic nation. According to Gay Star News, it is “the country with third largest number of Catholics with an estimated 75.5 million believers, or roughly 80% of the population.” Although bishops there have been outspoken against marriage equality, there are other signs that greater openness to LGBT people is emerging in the church.
For example, a Catholic parish recently conducted the funeral of a transgender woman, murdered allegedly by a U.S. military man. The parish used the woman’s preferred pronouns during the Mass and ritual. Furthermore, following the murder, the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (the heads of religious communities of men and women) issued a statement condemning anti-LGBT violence and called for a full inquiry into murder, especially important because political pressure might come into play because international military personnel are involved.
Archbishop Villegas’ statement is important because it very likely shows the “Francis effect.” In this case, the “effect” is a member of the hierarchy being more willing to speak out affirmatively about LGBT people.
It must be admitted that Villegas’ statement is not really a “cutting edge” statement which pushes the envelope on church teaching. It is safely within the parameters of very orthodox church discourse.
Yet, it must be remembered that though the teaching of the moral neutrality of a homosexual orientation has been official for four decades, very few bishops in the last two decades have shown any willingness to speak out about this most basic principle for fear of being considered too positive towards LGBT people.
If Pope Francis has done nothing else than given permission to bishops to speak out on even the tamest parts of church teaching on homosexuality, that, in itself, is a major step forward. If he wants to take the next step, he should follow the advice of Shakira Sison, given above.
Let’s hope and pray that Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines will inspire greater courage on the part of the hierarchy there to open their doors and their minds to the lives of LGBT people.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry