During his annual pre-Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia last week, Pope Francis sharply criticized Vatican officials for opposing his efforts at ecclesial reform. Some prelates, he said, possessed a “malevolent resistance. . .[that] sprouts from twisted minds and presents itself when the devil inspires bad intentions.”
The National Catholic Reporter reported that Francis said such resistance “finds refuge in tradition, in appearances, in formality, in the known, or in the desire to make everything personal without distinguishing between act, actor, and action.”
These remarks are, perhaps, the pope’s most strident acknowledgment that his efforts at reform and renewal are extremely unwelcome by some church leaders. And Francis continued, “It is necessary to reiterate with force that the reform is not an end in itself but is a process of growth and most of all, conversion.”
But what has reform and renewal meant for Pope Francis when it comes to LGBT issues? Are the pope and the entire church experiencing growth and conversion? Or is Pope Francis himself part of a resistance to greater gender and sexual inclusion? Today’s post reviews what the pope has and has not done on LGBT issues in 2016.
The year began with the release of a book-length interview with the pope entitled The Name of God is Mercy. In it, Francis expanded on his now famous 2013 “Who am I to judge” remark. He said lesbian and gay people are, before all else, people with wholeness and dignity who must be welcomed. He importantly offered no condemnation or moral evaluation in regard to sexual ethics, which would have almost certainly been included by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Later in January, in a speech to the Roman Rota, Pope Francis said “there can be no confusion between the family as willed by God, and every other type of union.” Some observers understood these remarks as an intervention to the debate over civil unions going on in Italy at the time. Other observers said the remarks were more about divorced Catholics and annulments, and noted that Francis did not directly intervene in Italian politics about “non-negotiable values” as his predecessors had done.
In February, Pope Francis issued a statement with Russian Patriarch Kirill, after their historic meeting, that strongly condemned marriage equality. The leaders said they “regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as [marriage]” and that marriage was “being banished from the public conscience.”
In April, Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) following the two-year process of the Synods on the Family. The exhortation offered some hope, but not much joy for LGBT people and their families, who were largely left out of the document. To read Bondings 2.0’s ongoing coverage about the exhortation, including many reactions and analyses, click here.
In June, Pope Francis called for the church to apologize to lesbian and gay people. He said “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.” A parish in Australia held a precedent-setting liturgy of forgiveness in response to the pope’s remarks.
In July, in a private meeting with Poland’s bishops during his Apostolic Visit there, Pope Francis claimed, that children were being taught in schools they could choose a gender. He also endorsed remarks by Benedict XVI who said the present era was an “epoch of sin against God the creator.” LGBT advocates pushed back strongly against these comments when they became public a few weeks after the meeting.
In September, the pope weighed in on Mexico’s highly contentious debate over marriage equality, saying during the Angelus one Sunday that he joined the country’s bishops in their efforts “in favor of the family and of life, which at this time require special pastoral and cultural attention worldwide.” Bishops in Mexico have claimed persecution by the state (though these comments must be interpreted in the context of the actual and quite violent persecution against the church in the early 20th century)” and have supported “ex-gay” therapy.
In October, Pope Francis spoke about LGBT issues during one of his in-flight interviews, comments which received mixed reactions from LGBT advocates. First, the pope responded to a question about how he would care pastorally for a person who is gender dysphoric. Francis shared that he had “accompanied people with homosexual tendencies,” even since being elected pope. He also spoke about meeting a transgender man, Diego Neria Lejárraga, in 2015. In his response, the pope used the man’s correct pronouns and said at one point, “He that was her but is he.”
But these more positive remarks also included Francis’ joke that the press should not report “the Pope blesses transgenders.” He criticized as well undefined concepts of gender theory and ideological colonization, and told the strange anecdote of a father who found out his child was being told in school that gender could be chosen. The day before these comments while speaking to clergy in Georgia, Pope Francis had decried the “world war to destroy marriage.”
As much as Pope Francis himself has weighed in on LGBT issues himself, his name has been invoked by other Catholics in their own comments.
In October, Providence’s Bishop Thomas Tobin said Francis would support the firing of gay music director Michael Templeton. And a Vatican official tweeted that the pope was saddened to find out two former nuns had entered a civil union in Italy, an unconfirmed judgment based solely on the pope’s facial expressions.
Most recently, in December, it was reported that Pope Francis had approved a document on priesthood that reaffirmed a 2005 ban on gay men entering the priesthood.
In a larger trend this year, bishops appear to have been encouraged by Pope Francis’ criticism of “gender theory” and “ideological colonization” in the context of LGBT issues. You can read several examples of such statements by bishops by clicking here.
But Pope Francis has also been invoked by many LGBT Catholics and allies in work to build a more inclusive church and seek equal rights.
Yayo Grassi, a former student of the pope’s who remains close with Francis, shared a positive appraisal during New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award Ceremony in October. Following an address by Jesuit Fr. James Martin, Grassi, whose meeting with Pope Francis during his visit to the United States made headlines, said that in Argentina, as Cardinal Bergoglio, the pope disavowed harsh comments against marriage equality attributed to him as misrepresentations by the media. He had actually been writing to nuns in private correspondence to ask them not to use harsh rhetoric. Grassi also said the pope stated:,”In my pastoral work, there is no place for homophobia.”
But as much as Pope Francis has said and as much as others have invoked him, there are glaring silences for which any analysis must account. When Pope Francis visited Poland for World Youth Day this summer, a group of Catholic parents with LGBT children asked him to speak against widespread homophobia still present in their society, including violence targeting gay people. He did not. And the pope has still remained silent about criminalization laws targeting LGBT people, even when church leaders like Malawi’s bishops strongly support such policies.
As you reflect on Pope Francis and LGBT issues, here are a few posts from the past year to read which discuss general papal trends:
“Examining the Two Faces of Pope Francis on LGBT Issues” by Vernon Smith
“For LGBT Rights, Is Pope Francis a Partisan or Not?” by Robert Shine
“Putting Pope Francis’ ‘Ideology of Gender’ Comments in Context” by Cristina Traina
“Exploring Pope Francis’ Mixed Messages on LGBT Issues” by Francis DeBernardo
Finally, I offer a concluding note from my own consideration of Pope Francis. More and more, I read his treatment of LGBT issues within the wider context of his papacy and his vision. Pope Francis is clearly limited in his understandings of gender and sexuality, likely stemming from both his own lack of knowledge, and by relying on advisors at the Vatican with a more conservative agenda.
As many have observed, Pope Francis’ actions often speak far louder than his words. These movements to return to Jesus, in their firm commitment to more fully and fervently living out Christian discipleship, can only help the cause of LGBT equality in the long term. None of these positives, however, excuses or lessens the harmful impact of his LGBT negative comments in which he does real damage to people’s lives.
Most importantly for me, Francis has been far more faithful than his immediate predecessors to the teachings of Vatican II. He prioritizes a church of mercy and welcome, a church foremost committed to justice for marginalized and vulnerable people, and a church where honest conversation is practiced to strengthen the faithful’s unity amid tremendous diversity. This vision was present in his Christmas homily, in which he speaks about the honored place of people on the margins:
“The mystery of Christmas, which is light and joy, questions and unsettles us, because it is at once both a mystery of hope and of sadness. It bears within itself the taste of sadness, inasmuch as love is not received, and life discarded. This happened to Joseph and Mary, who found the doors closed, and placed Jesus in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn” (v. 7). Jesus was born rejected by some and regarded by many others with indifference. . .
“The shepherds grasped this in that night. They were among the marginalized of those times. But no one is marginalized in the sight of God and it was precisely they who were invited to the Nativity.”
So, what are your thoughts about Pope Francis? Do you evaluate him more positively or more negatively as 2016 concludes? What are your hopes for the pope and the church for 2017? Let us know in the “Comments” section below.
Be sure to vote for the Best and Worst Catholic LGBT News of 2016. You can vote by clicking here. Voting closes at 5:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. Time on Thursday, December 29th.
–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 27, 2016