By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 15, 2016
The recent, terrible trend of Church employees being fired because of LGBT issues raises many questions about justice, equality, and human rights in the Catholic community. An Associated Press reporter also identified another important tension that this trend highlights. Michelle Smith noted that this trend also shows “the confusion that permeates some U.S. Roman Catholic parishes over Pope Francis’ words on homosexuality.”
Many of Bondings 2.0’s readers have often wondered in their comments why Pope Francis, who seems concerned with pastoral outreach to LGBT people, has not become involved in the too many examples of church workers being fired because of a pastor’s or bishop’s disapproval of LGBT issues. Reporter Smith examined this question using the recent case of Michael Templeton, a Providence, Rhode Island, parish music director who was fired for marrying his male partner.
Smith notes that in this case:
“Francis is being cited by both the music director, Michael Templeton, and by Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin, known for taking a hard line on church teaching about marriage and abortion. Tobin has criticized Francis, writing after the pope’s summit on the family two years ago that ‘Francis is fond of “creating a mess.” Mission accomplished.’ “
The pope’s positive statements on LGBT people have been mixed with traditional orthodox defenses of heterosexual marriage, thus making the positive statements “a Rorschach test open to interpretation,” observes Smith. The reporter summed up this problem with a quote from a theological expert:
” ‘Pope Francis has not said, “Here’s what you should do in a parish where you have a music director who has married his partner of the same sex,” said the Rev. James T. Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College. ‘Pope Francis is articulating general principles: forgiveness and mercy and not harsh judgment. But how you handle a particular case like this, he has been very reluctant to weigh in on it.’
“That means a gay Catholic’s fate depends on his diocese or individual pastor.”
As Bondings 2.0 reported previously, Bishop Tobin had released a statement citing Pope Francis’ statements and actions to defend the firing of Templeton. (Yet, not all of Tobin’s supposed precedents are relevant. For instance, the bishop said Francis fired Msgr. Kryzstof Charamsa of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for coming out as gay and acknowledging he was in a relationship. Yet, more likely is that the prefect of the CDF fired Charamsa, and, in any case, the examples are not parallel since Charamsa was ordained.)
Smith offered a few recent examples that show the mixed messages that Francis has been giving:
“Francis underscored his emphasis on mercy over defending orthodoxy with his first U.S. picks for cardinals, announced Sunday, choosing bishops who have taken a more welcoming approach to gays and others who have felt alienated from the church.
“Asked this month about how he would minister to transgender Catholics, Francis responded: ‘When someone who has this condition comes before Jesus, Jesus would surely never say, “Go away because you’re gay.” ‘
“At the same time, he recently supported Mexican bishops working against a push to legalize same-sex marriage.”
The mixed messages may be indicative of how far–or not–Francis wants to go. Smith cited Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry:
“Before Francis, ‘people were afraid to even say the words gay or lesbian,’ DeBernardo said. ‘I do think he’s taken an important step that could lead to further steps. I’m not certain, I don’t think he will make a change in church doctrine, but I think he is laying the groundwork for future changes.’ “
Pope Francis may not opine directly about a specific church worker firing or even the trend of firings now being experienced, but a close reading of his writings clarifies how he might respond. In Evangelii Gaudium, the pope warned against pastoral workers who exhibit a “spiritual worldliness,” manifest in one form as the “self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism” of church officials who act as if they are superior to others. Francis commented:
“A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.”
Where a church worker is fired for their gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, marital status, or political beliefs, church leaders have harmfully analyzed and classified that person strictly according to their gender and sexuality. Right-wing Catholics have expended themselves inspecting and verifying, and then publicly outing and shaming too many LGBT people in the church.
For those who think Pope Francis has made a mess of the Church, like Bishop Tobin has expressed, they would do well to ponder the words of Cardinal-elect Kevin Farrell who recently said, “If you find Pope Francis ‘confusing’ – you have not read or do not understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In Evangelii Gaudium and elsewhere, Francis condemns church ministers whose foremost attitude is not mercy. Foremost for the pope is to see every person as beloved by God, and he consistently attacks each and every effort which reduces the mystery of the human person to something less than a child of God.
Like all of us, Francis is human and he is clearly grappling to understand sexuality and gender, confined as he may be by his own limitations and contexts. His outreach to LGBT people is as notable as it is imperfect, but on this point we can be clear: one can find no support for discriminating against LGBT church workers in the pastoral witness of Pope Francis.