Pope Francis' Visit Is Ambiguous on LGBT Issues Thus Far–And It's Not Over Yet

Pope Francis greeting crowds in D.C.

Pope Francis greeting crowds in D.C.

Pope Francis’ visit to the United States is well underway, as he finished up in Washington, D.C. and headed to the United Nations in New York City. Before he addresses the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this weekend, Bondings 2.0 is taking stock of what he has said thus far as it relates to LGBT issues.

Welcomed at the White House

Francis began with remarks at the White House, affirming in the first paragraph of his public statements that this visit was to be “days of encounter and dialogue” but also nodding to the fact that his visit revolves around the Eighth World Meeting of Families, which has been meeting in Philadelphia all week. However, the comment drawing many observers’ attention was the pope’s use of the phrase “unjust discrimination” in his address to President Obama and the crowd at the executive mansion:

“American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination.”

This term, found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its section on homosexuality, has a dubious history. Buzzfeed contacted Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Way Ministry, who commented:

” ‘We haven’t heard that term in a long time — in the three years since Francis has been in — and it is disturbing to hear him resurrect it. I think the record shows that sometimes he speaks out of both sides of his mouth’ . . .

” ‘I would be fearful that right now the U.S. bishops think that just discrimination would be being able to discriminate against gay and lesbian people who choose to marry.’ “

In the same article, Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA said the phrase has “dangerous ramifications for LGBT people” and “sets off warning bells” because:

” ‘. . .it is support for a position many U.S. Catholic bishops have taken — which is against same-sex marriage, the right to fire married gay employees or transgender employees, the right to exclude LGBT people from adoption, and to deny LGBT people foster-care services.’ “

Pope Francis’ statements are, at times, famously unclear,  DeBernardo noted. He said the White House remark could either mean that “the pope rejects unjustifiable discrimination against LGBT people, or he rejects unjustifiable discrimination against religious people who oppose LGBT rights.”

The Vatican, via spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi, is refusing to clarify what “unjust discrimination” would constitute or what the pope was referencing. Interestingly, an editorial from L’Osservatore Romano quoted Pope Francis as using the phrase “every form of discrimination,” not “unjust discrimination, which is included in the official text of his speech and how many major news organizations reported it.

Meeting with U.S. Bishops

Later on Wednesday, Pope Francis addressed a gathering of U.S. bishops at Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and gave, as is becoming customary when he holds episcopal meetings, a rather lengthy reflection. While not directly addressing LGBT issues, several statements challenged the often caustic and condemnatory tone used by U.S. bishops when addressing “culture war” issues.

Pope Francis spoke “as a brother among brothers,” emphasizing that bishops are foremost pastors concerned with caring for people. Noting bishops’ tendencies to be defensive, the pope said:

” ‘And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter. . .Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wears of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16)’. . .

” ‘The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. . .

” ‘Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.’ “

Whether intentional or not, Pope Francis’ suggestion to use pastoral dialogue instead of harsh language could rebut the manner in which many U.S. church officials have dealt with LGBT issues. Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter called the speech a “masterpiece” and wrote:

“The man [Francis] just radiates the joy that comes from trust in the Lord. . .I did not hear him blame secularism or anything else for what ails the Church. Quite the contrary. . .How many culture warriors in the U.S. can say the same? The pope challenged the culture warrior model today, and it did it with extraordinary gentleness, reminding me of the biblical injunction that we shall reap what we have sown.”

Further analysis from the National Catholic Reporter‘s Joshua McElwee is available here.

Address to U.S. Congress

Yesterday, Pope Francis addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in a historic first for a pontiff.  It was one of the most anticipated events of his visit. His speech is winning broad praise across the political spectrum. He touched only briefly on marriage and family issues towards the end of his talk:

“How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”

The pope then pivoted to speak about the struggles young people face, described as “the most vulnerable” of all people,  and he acknowledged the competing pressures they face today.

Were Francis’ remarks on threats to the family an allusion to marriage equality?  It’s hard to say.  Families do, in fact, face enormous pressures today from many quarters:  economic, psychological, cultural, and political.  Is his language choice a way of not wanting to be offensive, or is it a way to use coded language to get his message across?

Also worth noting is Pope Francis’ citation of two U.S. Catholics who faced criticism, even censure, for their views: Dorothy Day tried to integrate socialist and anarchist ideas into a church which was fiercely anti-leftist; Thomas Merton was silenced by religious superiors for his prophetic writings on peace and eastern spirituality. Both figures are now being rehabilitated in the church, and McElwee wrote in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) that “both citations are certainly extraordinary.”  NCR Publisher Thomas Fox provided brief profiles on these saintly models, which you can find here.

Going Forward?

Lest I seem naive, I acknowledge Pope Francis still holds to views which fail to acknowledge the goodness of LGBT people and their relationships. He is opposed to marriage equality and we cannot obfuscate these realities even when his words about dialogue and encounter are good and true. LGBT people and their families still face exclusion and spiritual and psychological violence inflicted by church officials in many parts of the world.

Pope Francis also glaringly avoids paying any attention specifically to women, whose oppression within the church is tied to similar views on gender and sexuality so often employed against LGBT people. New York Magazine rightly wrote, “Pope Francis’ Revolution Has Left Out Women.”

I also know that Pope Francis’ new way of being church will be tenuous at first and, in some places, won’t take root. Also noteworthy is that, despite repeated requests, Francis has chosen so far to not intentionally encounter LGBT Catholics during his U.S. visit.

What remains an open question is how Pope Francis will approach LGBT issues when he directly speaks about marriage and family life this weekend at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. If only he would actually act on his reported desire to meet with gay and lesbian people, perhaps his insights would be more grounded in reality. If Francis’ remarks at the World Meeting of Families are negative about LGBT people, that would be a major challenge to his reputation as a more merciful and inclusive pontiff.

Stay tuned to Bondings 2.0 through the weekend (and in the weeks to come for the Synod on the Family) for ongoing Catholic LGBT news and analysis. To receive regular updates, subscribe to the blog (for free) by typing your email address in the “Follow” box in the upper right-hand corner of this page, and then click the “Follow” button.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

6 replies
  1. thom
    thom says:

    Thanks for these thoughts, Bob…

    I should say that I am impressed with the consistency of Pope Francis’s message: it did not stray far from his message of his very first extensive interview in 2013 with Rev. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. jointly published in the periodicals America and La Civiltà Cattolica.

    In that interview, Pope Francis, six months into his papacy, stated his opinion that the Church had grown “obsessed” with preaching about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, and in trying to explain his reasoning behind his preferred actions and “omissions” stated, “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the [C]hurch are not all equivalent. The [C]hurch’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” [1]

    A very carefully chosen semantic meaning in those words… “A disjointed multitude of doctrines” would seem to admit that there was a wide chasm of opinion—even among his higher hierarchy—that contributed to much confusion and hurt among the cascading deaconate, sub-deaconate, and lay followers of the Church. “Why are such calcifying, divisive subjects even being pandered around?” he seemed to ask, when he pontificated that, “…they have to be taught in a larger context. ‘The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.’” [2]

    In regards to the question of homosexuality, Pope Francis had this to say: “A person once asked me in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” he told Father Spodaro. “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.”

    There is no mention of homosexuality in Francis’s speeches (thus far). The non-specificity/ambiguity can be a good thing, or a bad thing. Because, while I interpret its absence as an indicator of its irrelevancy toward “the first and foremost mission of solidifying unity,” others will apply their own interpretation to the omission. For instance, this paragraph in Francis’s speech to the united States bishops is completely up-for-grabs:

    “These essential aspects of the Church’s mission belong to the core of what we have received from the Lord. It is our duty to preserve and communicate them, even when the tenor of the times becomes resistant and even hostile to that message (Evangelii Gaudium, 34-39). I urge you to offer this witness, with the means and creativity born of love, and with the humility of truth. It needs to be preached and proclaimed to those without, but also to find room in people’s hearts and in the conscience of society.”

    Such a statement is completely open to interpretation, and I assure you, conservatives will quote it as a license to actively continue persecuting LGBT people based on the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament.

    However, the core of what we learned from “the Lord” (Jesus Christ—in the New Testament) did not include instructions regarding homosexuality, neither homosexual acts nor homosexual love. People do quote Jesus’s statement from Matthew where he claims not to have “come to abolish or change the law [of Moses] or the prophets.” (Matthew 5:17) But immediately following thereafter he makes a series of distinctions which have been deemed the “Antitheses,” because essentially he is creating a new interpretation of the laws, or extending their meaning, or re-defining their meaning. I feel that it is convenient that theologians do not remember this important factor. They refuse to admit that Jesus was a radical, a rebel, that he was the new covenant… that he changed things. It astonishes me that we can admire Jesus for coming into the world to make the greatest change in man’s history, and that he said it was okay to contest unjust rules and laws, and yet most Christians are only interested in concretizing Jesus the person—they would be more comfortable relating to him as a statue than they would be to have to confront him in flesh and blood, with the messiness of having a real conversation instead of projecting what they want to hear coming from his stone lips.

    After three major speeches by Francis, I’m not much further along in my own Catholic community self-esteem redemption… But I do know that my local bishop listened to Francis’s words (because he posted favorite phrases on his facebook page), so perhaps the possibility of dialogue does exist, and that first ball rolling towards understanding and unity has a chance of getting under way.

    I will pray as much……

    [1] Goodstein, Laurie. “Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion.” New York Times, September 19, 2013.

    [2] Ibid.

  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    And in what may or may not be a related Papal phenomenon: House Speaker John Boehner, a devout Catholic, announced this afternoon, at a tearful press conference, that he is resigning from his position as Speaker of the House, and also resigning from the Congress entirely — after Pope Francis embraced him (in an elevator ride which they shared), and asked Boehner to pray for him. It’s increasingly clear that this charismatic Papacy is something quite extraordinary, and virtually unprecedented in modern history. It is dramatically a work in progress — with more surprises certainly to follow.

  3. Jerry Baumeister, PhD
    Jerry Baumeister, PhD says:

    I don’t think criticizing Pope Francis will advance the gay agenda in any way. There were some powerful people who criticized Jesus and where did it get them? Pope Francis is an extraordinary person with an awesome message, so close your mouths and open your ears. This man is open to dialogue which is more than any recent pope was willing to do. Pope Francis warned of fanaticism. Shame on those who are already sharpening their daggers. Instead of putting him down and pointing out his flaws, do as he asked and PRAY FOR HIM!!!

  4. poolgirl2
    poolgirl2 says:

    I firmly believe that what everyone forgets about same-sex relationships is that they do not threaten or in any way diminish opposite-sex marriage or “the family”. Instead, they support people where they are. A person does not have to get into a marriage or committed relationship against their sexual orientation to have children, a family, or society’s approval. It means that those in same-sex relationships have the ability and support to have what many people want: love, children, companionship, community/family support, commitment, and the ability to practice their religion to have a fulfilling life. It is NOT all about sex, just as opposite-sex relationships are not forever! “Who am I to judge?”


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  1. […] clearly did not endorse marriage equality, civil or sacramental, and, as we’ve reported from talks earlier in the week, his position is clearly that marriage should be kept a heterosexuals-only […]

  2. […] Bondings 2.0 surveyed Pope Francis treatment of LGBT issues during his visit to Washington, D.C. Today, as the pope begins his schedule in Philadelphia, here […]

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