Until yesterday, I had wanted to write a hope-filled blog post about Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines this weekend. On Wednesday and Thursday, I had been reading articles about the great expectation for his visit building in this nation with the third largest Catholic population in the world (behind Brazil and Mexico, and followed by the U.S.). There has been much good news lately about Filipino church leaders speaking out for LGBT people.
But then yesterday, the news broke that in one of his talks in the Philippines, Pope Francis decried the “ideological colonization” of the family, of which journalist John Allen said that a Vatican spokesman told him that “at least in part, the pope had gay marriage in mind.”
Joshua McElwee of The National Catholic Reporter provided the details of the statement, made at a meeting of families:
“Saying that God is calling people to ‘recognize the dangers threatening our own families,’ Francis stated, ‘There is an ideological colonization we have to be careful of that tries to destroy the family.’
“Obliquely referencing historical colonization of the Philippines and his native Argentina, he continued: ‘Just as our peoples were able to say no to the period of colonization, as families we have to be very wise and very strong with fortitude to say no to these initiatives of colonization that could destroy the family.’ “
Later in the story, McElwee reported on the pope’s elaboration of these ideas:
” ‘The pressures on family life today are many,’ Francis said. ‘The economic situation has caused families to be separated by migration and the search for employment, and financial problems strain many households.’
He continued: ‘The family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.’ “
In the same talk, he praised Pope Paul VI’s birth control encyclical, Humanae Vitae, but also urged pastors to be compassionate in particular cases.
What to make of this development, especially since it comes just about two months after the Vatican hosted a conference on male/female complementarity in sexuality, where the pope publicly praised the concept which many see as sexist and irrelevant to authentic discussions of sexual relationships?
John Allen wrote that while many saw Pope Francis as a progressive at the last synod, and that some feared he was stacking the deck for the next synod to align with liberal notions. Allen’s response:
“In light of the pope’s comments in the Philippines, those conclusions may have to be rethought.”
Allen may be right that for some people, both on the right and on the left, their vision of Pope Francis as a liberal is severely challenged by his recent remarks. But Francis, while much more progressive in many ways than the previous two popes, had never really stated firmly that he supported same-gender marriage. The furthest he had gone was to support civil unions as an alternative to marriage when he was an archbishop in Argentina, and to make a vague reference in an interview last spring to being open to the possibility of legal civil unions, though it was unclear if he meant this for heterosexual couples as an alternative to marriage or to lesbian and gay couples as a form of civil protection.
My response to the pope’s recent comments focus more on his use of the words “ideological colonization.” That to me is more problematic than a negative assessment of marriage equality, which I did not think he ever supported. “Ideological colonization” invokes a political framework of imposing outside values by force. There are two reasons why that is problematic.
First, most Catholics who support marriage equality do so because they are motivated by their faith. It is not an ideological or political stand for them. They believe in the equality of lesbian and gay people, they see their committed relationships as holy, natural, and wholesome, and they want the children in those families to be protected. These are not ideological concerns, and they are not based in relativism.
Second, “colonization” seems to refer to statements by some African members of the hierarchy who have erroneously stated that homosexuality is not native to their countries, but brought in by Westerners. Of course, this is not true at all, as homosexuality has existed in all cultures. If colonialists brought anything in this regard, it was homophobia.
There is a burgeoning LGBT movement in the Philippines, and one of the reasons I was hopeful earlier in the week was that I read a news report that a coalition of LGBT organizations had written an open letter asking the pope to meet with them. What is interesting about the letter is that there is no mention of marriage equality in it. They wanted to meet with him to discuss stigma, bullying, assault, disease, and dehumanization, among other problems they have. Wouldn’t it have been great if the pope met with this group and listened, rather than speaking words which do not reflect the truth about LGBT lives?
Pope Francis could also have met with Filipino pastoral workers who do outreach to LGBT people. The New York Times reported:
“The church has also become more tolerant of those whose lifestyles conflict with church teachings on social issues.
“ ‘Gay people and people who are living with a partner outside of marriage worship and serve in our parish, said Joseph Zaldivar, a seminarian at the Archdiocese of Manila. ‘They are welcomed.’
“He said that message had reached parishes around the country.”
Or he could have spoken to one lesbian couple who were married in a non-denominational church in the Philippines on the day that the pope arrived there.
The hallmark of Francis’ papacy has not been his outreach to LGBT people, though indeed that has been more marked than his predecessors. The hallmark has been his openness to dialogue and discussion. He should have followed his own principles and been a listener in the Philippines, rather than a talker.
And finally, the teaching against birth control and the teaching against same-sex relationships both spring from the principle that all sexual acts should be open to procreation. If Pope Francis is willing to consider individual cases in regards to birth control, as he said in this speech, couldn’t the same direction be given in regards to lesbian and gay couples?
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
ABS-CBN News: “Little hope of Roman Catholic revolution”
Advocate.com: “Pope Calls Same-Sex Marriage a ‘Threat’ to the Family”