After their historic meeting in Cuba this past weekend, from Pope Francis and Russian Patriarch Kirill issued a statement which included a strong condemnation against marriage equality, the pontiff’s latest strike against marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples.
Two paragraphs of their wide-ranging statement dealt with family life. After noting that Catholics and Orthodox hold the “same conception” of family and shared concern for “the crisis in the family in many countries,” the second paragraph followed:
“The family is based on marriage, an act of freely given and faithful love between a man and a woman. It is love that seals their union and teaches them to accept one another as a gift. Marriage is a school of love and faithfulness. We regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as this union, while the concept, consecrated in the biblical tradition, of paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.”
The meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill at Havana’s airport was a stopover for the pontiff on his journey to a pastoral visit to Mexico. (More about the Mexican portion of his trip in a future post.)
That these religious leaders retain a hetero-normative understanding of marriage is not news. Pope Francis said in January there should be “no confusion between the family as willed by God, and every other type of union” and in the past he has endorsed political movements to stop marriage equality in Slovenia and Slovakia. But this joint statement is still troubling and worth reflecting upon. Below, I offer three points to help understand what this statement could mean.
First, there is a question about whether the leaders’ intentions behind their joint statement’s words are equally aligned.
The institutional Catholic Church’s record on homosexuality is problematic, but the Russian Orthodox Church’s record is far more so. Being out as a gay or lesbian person in Russia remains dangerous. A 2013 propaganda law essentially criminalized LGBT culture and advocacy and caused hate crimes to increase. There are no non-discrimination protections, but more troubling is the anti-gay vigilantism which goes unchecked. The Russian Orthodox Church, intimately tied to the Russian state under President Vladimir Putin, has explicitly as well as implicitly endorsed this reality. Catholic journalist Jamie Manson explored the connection between religion and anti-LGBT prejudice in a 2013 column for the National Catholic Reporter. She reported that gangs physically attacking LGBT protesters in Moscow have “held Orthodox icons and chanted prayers” during their actions.
While Pope Francis’ record on LGBT issues is aptly described as ambiguous, Patrarich Kirill’s is certainly not. Manson quoted Kirill as saying marriage equality is “apocalyptic” and will lead to Russia’s “self-destruction.” He is a close ally of Putin’s, too, and The New York Times reported that a Russian newspaper admitted the meeting between Kirill and Francis would not have happened “if the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church did not coincide with those of the Kremlin.”
There’s a dissonance between Kirill’s approach to LGBT issues and Pope Francis’ call for mercy for all people. It seems the intentions and implications of each church’s approach to homosexuality is quite different. Pope Francis should have been aware that the message of the joint statement will be heard very differently in Russia than it will in Western Catholic nations where marriage equality is a settled reality.
Second, Christian unity is a good and necessary project but it is a false unity if built on oppression. Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill’s meeting was the first between leaders of their respective churches in history. It is progress in healing a divide between Catholic and Orthodox Christians that has existed for more than a millennium. But real unity will not come if that unity is premised upon a joint desire to degrade and limit the rights of LGBT people, or women, or other communities marginalized by the churches. Pope Francis should have avoided LGBT issues altogether in the joint statement given Patriarch Kirill’s record. Discipleship in Christ is grounds enough for these ecumenical projects without providing cover for those who use religion to justify their anti-LGBT prejudices.
Third, and this is perhaps a perpetual reminder. Church leaders like Francis and Kirill have their helpful roles, but they are not the church in and of themselves. This joint statement is a mixed bag, with portions worth criticizing (their words on marriage) and portions worth praising (the attention they gave to persecuted Christians). But we should not afford it too much weight. This joint statement’s content will likely become less important than the sheer symbolism of this meeting. Most importantly, the people of God compose the church and, in many regions, Catholics are overwhelmingly supportive of human rights for and ecclesial inclusion of our LGBT siblings. No statement can impede that inclusive movement by the Spirit.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry