Is Church Teaching a Weapon Used Against LGBT People?

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.”

Pope Francis

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



8 replies
  1. lynne1946
    lynne1946 says:

    Thank you, Francis, for bringing this use of language to our attention. It is certainly interesting that the two statements were made in such near proximity to each other, and Father Pollitt really hit the nail on the head. Words certainly are often used as weapons, sometimes deliberately, sometimes thoughtlessly, but should be handled with care!

  2. Brian Kneeland
    Brian Kneeland says:

    In the US bishops have used language like “objectively disordered” as weapons and ignored the papal call for an apology. I would suggest that this behavior and use of language havve been weapons of mass destruction. But – you cannot affect change from the outside so we stay and quietly pray for change and are open to those who we feel would support us.

  3. Peter Beacham
    Peter Beacham says:

    I have two thoughts on this article:

    1. The use of the terms “bad religious language” and “a conversion of mind, heart language” by Father Russell Pollitt does not explicitly call for removing condemnations of LGBT people and their sexual relations from the Catechism. His comment certainly does not call for recognition of the established fact that sexuality and gender are not binaries but rather are spectrums and that heterosexuality is but one point on that God-given spectrum.

    2. The reference to “many weapons” by the Pope should not be considered to be limited to guns. There are many weapons – disapproval, scorn, physical assault, arrest and jail time, being thrown out of one’s childhood home, refusal to employ – and, of course, other physical weapons used to kill LGBT people over the centuries including burning at the stake.

    By condemning LGBT people in the Catechism the Catholic Church is, in effect, blessing many forms of weapons in daily use against LGBT people including the minds of its parishioners.

    Both of these people are skilled in the use of words but are they merely linguistic magicians using verbal sleight of hand or linguistic oddities, if you will, to conceal a reluctance to change the Catechism or they softening up prelates to consider a near future change in the Catechism to get rid of its offensive and wrong vilification of LGBT people and their sexual relations?

    So far, my vote is for the former.

    Apology without removal of the cause of the offense is lip service.

    As an English and Philosophy major I know that we are skilled at discerning meaning and/or equivocation in viewpoints. The representatives of the Catholic Church, including the above, have been long on equivocation and short on direct statement and meaning. I hope that changes soon.

  4. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    “Apology without removal of the cause of the offense is lip service.” Absolutely correct. We need no more evidence; the language that breeds negative attitudes towards LGBT people is toxic and needs to go. I appreciate Pollitt’s brave comments. And make no mistake, these comments are brave. Many religious are silenced and even banished. But the negative language and behavior towards LGBT people in the Catholic church is a cancer. People of conscience must not be silent. We must speak out, speak out, and never stop speaking out.

  5. Vernon Smith
    Vernon Smith says:

    Yes, Frank , it would be wonderful if the Pope intended the use of the word “weapons” more metaphorically, as you suggest is possible. But even if he did not intend it or was conscious of it, one can still hope that it is the spirit present in his words guiding potential deeper meanings that people like you could sense and publicise. I was struck by the two tone nature of the statement he made, but could not clearly articulate why I liked it . . . Until I read your piece today, Frank. I thought, that is it! Right on target, Frank. Rhetoric can be powerful, either positively or negatively. Let us take this one as a positive rhetorical turn based in the spirit. That is my admittedly naive hope! And an even more naive hope of mine: that church leaders could speak boldly, bluntly, and clearly about the gift of Lgbtq people without the need for the spirit to speak to us via double meanings!


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