Weeks after both the Orlando massacre and the pope’s call for an apology to lesbian and gay people, I’m still wading through articles and commentaries about both incidents. It’s no wonder. For entirely two different reasons, both events certainly touched deep emotions in many people.
Because I’m reading about both events almost simultaneously, I’d like to report on a little linguistic oddity that I found, though I’m not quite sure what it means.
On June 22nd, Jesuit Father Russell Pollitt, the director of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa, reflected on Orlando, noting that organized religion, and Catholicism in particular, needs to take some responsibility for propagating the hate which causes violence. Pollitt ends his reflection with what I consider the most powerful and blunt observation I’ve yet to read:
“Bad religion, which includes bad religious language, is an assault rifle – and it is used often. Some pulpits are assault rifles. We need an urgent discussion in our church about the way we speak about and treat gay people. We need a conversion of mind, heart and language.”
On June 26th, just a few days later, Pope Francis uttered his now famous call for the church to apologize to lesbian and gay people. Probably in the interest of journalistic brevity, usually only the main sentence of his interview was reported:
I think that the Church must not only ask forgiveness from the gay person who is offended, but she must also ask for forgiveness from the poor too, from women who are exploited, from children who are exploited for labour.
But later accounts also took note of the sentence which immediately followed these words:
“She [the Church] must ask forgiveness for having blessed so many weapons.”
Assault rifle? Many weapons? Coincidence?
Honestly, I’m not quite sure. I will admit that the first time I read the pope’s full quotation, before reading Pollitt’s essay, I assumed that Francis was referring to the fact that churches, historically, have literally had blessing rituals for weapons of war. After reading Pollitt’s reflection, I started to wonder if there was a different way of interpreting the pope’s remarks. Was he saying that some of the church’s language and messages about gay people, the poor, women, and exploited children can be compared to weapons?
I acknowledge that I may be stretching it a bit. I was an English major, after all, and we are known for sometimes finding meanings where none were intended. But Pope Francis is a Jesuit. Is it too much of a stretch to think that just a few days before he uttered his call for apology he might have read the online reflection of Pollitt, also a Jesuit and the head of an influential Jesuit agency? Even if Pollitt were not involved with the pope’s language, the question still remains if he meant “weapons” literally or metaphorically.
It may be impossible to discern Francis’ intentions from the linguistic evidence, and I do not want to stretch the point beyond credibility. What I do know, though, is that many LGBT people–and women–have experienced the church’s language and messaging as weapons. For some, their experience has shown that weapon is not just a metaphor. Pollitt describes an incident:
“When I was working in a parish community I remember being called to the emergency room of a local hospital one night. A young man had been admitted, hardly recognisable, because he had been beaten to a pulp. Earlier that evening he had “come out” to his family. His father justified the assault saying that it was against his religion to have a ‘moffie’ in the family. The family was deeply involved in the Catholic Church.
“While religion and religious language cannot be used as the sole motivating factor for this killing, it seems appropriate that believers interrogate the words they use and the positions they take. Religious positions and language contribute to a cocktail in which homophobia is incubated and bred. The kind of language, for example, which is used in official texts of the Church powerfully shapes perceptions, attitudes and actions. After all, isn’t that what religious teaching strives to do – shape perceptions, attitudes and actions – hopefully for the good? Phrases such as ‘objectively disordered’ are not helpful.”
I would like to think that Pollitt’s metaphor of bad religious language as an assault rifle is an overstatement, but I’ve heard too many painful stories over the years of physical, emotional, and spiritual violence to be able to convince myself of that position. Similarly, I would like to think that Pope Francis’ use of the church having “blessed so many weapons” might indicate that the pontiff was making an extremely strong statement about the harm the Church has caused people, but I don’t have enough evidence of that for certainty.
What I can be sure of, though, is that whatever Pope Francis meant by his words, he did call for the Church to apologize, and it is now incumbent on our leaders to begin this process of apology before more people are needlessly harmed.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry