Five years ago today, Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio of Argentina was elected to the papacy, becoming Pope Francis. Since that time, this new pope, the first non-European, broke all sorts of barriers in regard to LGBT issues, yet in some areas, he has remained as traditional as his predecessors had been.
The following is a chronology of Pope Francis’ statements and actions on LGBT issues. The items were gleaned from Bondings 2.0’s archive, and they represent a comprehensive record of his tenure. It was assembled by New Ways Ministry’s Francis DeBernardo and Robert Shine. Our hope is that this resource will help readers and researchers better realize the details and complexity of this papacy in the area of sexual orientation and gender identity.
If we have missed any important items, please send the information to info@NewWaysMinistry.org.
The list will remain on the blog, but it is also posted as a page on our website which will be updated as future news occurs. On the website page, in addition to the entire chronology, you can also search under tabs containing items that pertain to the following categories: Church Policy/Practice, Gender Identity, Historic Milestones, Marriage & Family, and Pastoral Ministry.
March 13, 2013: Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio of Buenos Aires is elected pope and takes the name Francis. LGBT advocates expressed hope, noting the pope’s support for civil unions when he was archbishop in Argentina, even as his overall LGBT record to this point had been quite mixed.
June 11, 2013: Pope Francis said that among a “stream of corruption” in the Curia, a “gay lobby” exists and “we need to see what we can do.”
July 29, 2013: Pope Francis made his famous “Who am I to judge?” remark during an in-flight interview when returning from World Youth Day in Brazil. Asked by a journalist about gay priests, the pope responded, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” He became the first pontiff to use the word “gay” in reference to sexuality. But he also again raised the issue of a gay lobby at the Vatican, saying “lobbying by orientation” is a problem, before joking, “You see a lot written about the gay lobby. I still have not seen anyone in the Vatican with an identity card saying they are gay.” U.S. bishops largely downplayed the “Who am I to judge?” statement, but it was welcomed by LGBT advocates and many others.
September 30, 2013: In an interview with America magazine, Pope Francis notably addressed homosexuality in a pastoral, rather than sexual ethics context, saying:
“In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.
“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”
He also said the Church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods. . .it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” The interview was well received by LGBT advocates, including Sr. Jeannine Gramick who said she began to cry when reading it. Jezebel said, “Francis is basically the Beyoncé of organized religion.”
October 2013: Kairos, an organization of LGBT Catholics in Florence, Italy, reported it received a handwritten reply from Pope Francis to a letter the group had sent him, as well as receiving an acknowledgement from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. This is the first time that a pontiff communicates with an LGBT group. The letters’ contents were not made public.
November 24, 2013: In his first major teaching document, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis did not directly address homosexuality. He did, however, approvingly include a quote from the U.S. bishops’ 2006 document, Ministry to Persons with Homosexual Inclinations: Guidelines for Pastoral Care, that upholds the definition that a homosexual orientation is objectively disordered. The document, considered a roadmap for his papacy, included sections that could be applied to help greater LGBT inclusion in the Church.
November 2013: In a talk to the Catholic Union of Superiors General, that was then published by the Italian Jesuit journal La Civilita Cattolica, Pope Francis addressed same-gender unions. He said that, “on an educational level, gay unions raise challenges for us today which for us are sometimes difficult to understand.” He shared an anecdote about a young girl who told her teacher, “my mother’s girlfriend doesn’t love me,” while also suggesting the Church should not “administer a vaccine against faith” to youth when proclaiming Christ.
June 15, 2014: Speaking the day after thousands marched in Rome for marriage equality, Pope Francis spoke forcefully in defense of differences between men and women that are “an integral part of being human,” and said heterosexual marriages were necessary for children to be raised properly.
September 20, 2014: Pope Francis names Archbishop Blase Cupich as Archbishop of Chicago, replacing the strongly anti-LGBT Cardinal Francis George, OMI. Cupich, who already had a moderately positive record on LGBT issues, becomes more outspoken in his new role.
November 17, 2014: Pope Francis addressed an interfaith conference hosted by the Vatican that was attended by opponents of LGBT equality. He told those gathered that “we must not fall into the trap of qualifying [family] with ideological concepts. . .We cannot qualify [the family] with concepts of an ideological nature that only have strength in a moment of history and then fall.” He also said children “have the right to grow up in a family, with a father and a mother,” and that marriage and family were “in crisis.”
December 2014: In an interview with the Argentine newspaper La Nacion, Pope Francis addressed the issue of Catholic parents with lesbian and gay children. While speaking about the Synod on the Family that had occurred in October, the Pope said:
“Nobody spoke about homosexual marriage in the synod, it didn’t occur to us. What we spoke about was how a family that has a homosexual son or daughter, how can they educate him or her, how can they raise him or her, how can this family be helped to move forward in this situation which is a little unprecedented. So in the synod they spoke about the family and homosexual persons in relation to their families, because it is a reality that we encounter many times in the confessional. . .We have to find a way to help that father or that mother to stand by their son or daughter.”
January 2015: Pope Francis met at the Vatican with a transgender man from Spain who had been rejected by his local parish after undergoing gender confirming surgery. Diego Neria Lejárraga reported about his meeting with the pope, saying the pope called him in response to a letter the man had written, and Francis invited Diego and his partner to the Vatican.
February 4, 2015: Addressing pilgrims to the Vatican from Slovakia, Pope Francis expressed his support for anti-LGBT positions in that nation’s referendum on marriage equality and adoption rights by same-gender couples. The referendum to ban marriage and adoption rights failed.
February 13, 2015: In a book-length interview, Pope Francis critiqued gender theory, saying:
“Let’s think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings. . .Let’s think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation.”
Many observers suggested the pope had compared transgender people to nuclear weapons, but his critique of gender theory could also be interpreted more generally.
February 18, 2015: At the Ash Wednesday papal audience in St. Peter’s Square, a group of 50 LGBT and ally pilgrims from New Ways Ministry are given V.I.P. seating.
March 12, 2015: Pope Francis names Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv., as Bishop of Lexington, Kentucky. Bishop Stowe becomes a strong voice for LGBT equality by speaking at LGBT events.
March 21, 2015: Pope Francis visits a prison in Naples, having lunch with some 90 prisoners, 10 of whom were from the ward which holds inmates who are gay, transgender, or who have HIV/AIDS.
March 23, 2015: Pope Francis names Bishop Robert McElroy as Bishop of San Diego, California. Bishop McElroy becomes one of the leading voices of Catholic LGBT equality in the U.S. hierarchy.
May 24, 2015: Pope Francis released his encyclical Laudato Sí, and in paragraph 155 attacked “gender theory” which has been interpreted by some observers to be a condemnation of transgender identities.
July 11, 2015: While on an apostolic visit to Paraguay, Pope Francis met with a group of civil leaders, including Simón Cazal, a married gay activist who leads the group SOMOSGAY.
August 2015: Pope Francis wrote approvingly to the author of a controversial children’s book that featured lesbian and gay characters. The book’s author, Francesca Pardi, had written to the pope about the protests the book had received from Catholics in Italy. Francis’ reply included a blessing, though the Vatican clarified that the blessing was for the author and not the book.
September 2015: Pope Francis’ visit to the United States made LGBT-related headlines on several fronts. At various points, he criticized both “ideological colonization” and social exclusion. Addressing the U.S. Congress, he said family “is threatened, perhaps as never before,” while at the White House he resurrected the phrase “unjust discrimination,” yet, he chastised U.S. bishops for their “harsh and divisive” style. An openly gay comedian, Mo Rocca, lectored during a papal Mass. During an interview on the return flight to Rome, he signaled support for government officials like Kim Davis who had objected to having to process marriage licenses for same-gender couples. News initially broke that the pope had met with Davis while in the U.S., but the Vatican clarified she was only among a crowd the pope greeted. News also broke that while in the U.S., the only personal meeting that Pope Francis had was with a former student, Yayo Grassi, and his male partner.
September 2015: Pope Francis received Bishop Jacques Gaillot at the Vatican. Gaillot had been removed from his diocese in Evreux, France in 1995 in part because he blessed the union of a same-gender couple.
September 2015: As he presented the pope with a film from LGBT Catholics in New York City, Fr. Gil Martinez said Pope Francis told him, “I would love to visit and talk to gay and lesbian people and please tell the gays to pray for me and I shall pray for them.”
November 28, 2015: While on an apostolic visit to Uganda, a country with harsh anti-sodomy laws, Pope Francis called on Christians: “to build a more just society which promotes human dignity, without excluding anyone, defends God’s gift of life, and protects the wonders of nature, his creation, and our common home.”
Afterwards, Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi said that the line “without excluding anyone” (omitted in the Vatican’s English translation of the homily) “would also include people with homosexual tendencies.”
December 16, 2015: Pope Francis gave anti-marriage equality efforts in Slovenia a boost, when at a general audience the week before a referendum to decide the fate of a pro-marriage equality law, he said: “I wish to encourage all Slovenians, especially those in public capacity, to preserve the family as the basic unit of society.” A group of Slovenian pilgrims were in attendance at the audience. The following week, the referendum defeated marriage equality.
January 12, 2016: In his new book, The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis expanded on his famous “Who am I to judge?” line, saying:
“On that occasion I said this: If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person? I was paraphrasing by heart the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it says that these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized.
“I am glad that we are talking about ‘homosexual people’ because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity. And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love.”
“I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it.”
January 22, 2016: In an address to the Vatican’s Roman Rota, which deals with marriage annulments, Pope Francis makes the following remarks:
“[T]here can be no confusion between the family as willed by God, and every other type of union. . .The Church continues to propose marriage in its essentials – offspring, good of the couple, unity, indissolubility, sacramentality – not as ideal only for a few – notwithstanding modern models centered on the ephemeral and the transient – but as a reality that can be experienced by all the baptized faithful. . .The family, founded on indissoluble matrimony that unites and allows procreation, is part of God’s dream and that of his Church for the salvation of humanity.”
February 12, 2016: At a historic meeting in Cuba, Pope Francis and Russian Patriarch Kirill issue a joint statement which includes condemnations about threats to traditional marriage, mentioning that “paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.”
March 19, 2016: Pope Francis issues Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation in response to the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family. In the document, he repeats church condemnations of same-sex unions, adoption by lesbian and gay couples, and the complexities of gender identity. He claimed, without substantiation, that international aid to developing nations is conditioned on acceptance of marriage equality. His discussion of pastoral care to families with lesbian and gay members was included in a section entitled “Casting Light on Crises, Worries and Difficulties.” He also called for pastors to be in dialogue with those whose lives do not conform with church teaching, and to respect people’s consciences.
May 17, 2016: In an interview with a French newspaper Pope Francis answers a question about how Catholics should respond to the institution of marriage equality by saying that the state should respect conscientious objection on the matter.
June 26, 2016: On a plane ride back to Rome from an apostolic visit to Armenia, Pope Francis says:
“The church must say it’s sorry for not having comported itself well many times, many times. . .I believe that the church not only must say it’s sorry. . .to this person that is gay that it has offended. . .But it must say it’s sorry to the poor, also, to mistreated women, to children forced to work.”
August 2, 2016: The Vatican releases a transcript of Pope Francis’ private meeting with Polish bishops a week earlier, where he decried the unsubstantiated idea that children are being taught in schools that they can change their gender. The pope blamed “ideological colonizing,” which he said included the practice that rich donors were providing textbooks to schools (though, this, too, was unsubstantiated).
October 1, 2016: While on an apostolic visit to Azerbaijan, the pope spoke out against contemporary ideas about marriage, saying:
“Today there is a world war to destroy marriage. Today there are ideological colonisations which destroy, not with weapons, but with ideas. Therefore, there is a need to defend ourselves from ideological colonisations.”
October 2, 2106: On a flight back to Rome, Pope Francis makes both positive and negative comments about transgender people. Referring to a transgender man with whom he met at the Vatican, he said, “‘He that was her but is he.’” He also suggested church ministers to accompany LGBT people, saying this is “what Jesus would do today.” But he also told reporters not to say “the Pope sanctifies transgenders.” He also criticized what he calls “ideological colonization” by recounting a story about a 10-year old boy saying he wanted to be a girl when he grew up.
October 7, 2016: After two Italian former nuns marry each other, a Vatican official tweets: ““How much sadness on the pope’s face when I read him the news of the two married ‘nuns’!’”
October 30. 2016: During a New Ways Ministry event, Yayo Grassi, a gay former student of the pope’s, reveals that during the marriage equality debate in Argentina, the future pope sent him an email which said, “There is no place for homophobia in the Church.”
December 8, 2016: Pope Francis approves a Vatican document on the priesthood which includes a ban on gay men from seminaries and ordination.
March 25, 2017: At a youth rally in Milan, Pope Francis instructs the participants to “promise Jesus to never bully.”
April 19, 2017: Pope Francis appoints Rev. John Dolan, a priest with a strong background in LGBT ministry, as auxiliary bishop of San Diego, California.
April 2017: In a surprise TED talk, Pope Francis makes a general call for inclusion noting that we can only build the future by standing together, including everyone.”
July 10, 2017: Through a letter from a papal aide, Pope Francis sends a congratulatory blessing letter to a Brazilian gay couple on the occasion of the baptism of their three adopted children.
July 2017: An Argentinian nun who organized an outreach ministry to transgender woman receives a supportive note from Pope Francis for her innovative work.
September 6, 2017: In a new book-length interview (Politics and Society by Dominique Wolton), Pope Francis gave tacit approval to civil unions, while at the same time decrying the notion that gender can be chosen. He stated:
“Marriage between people of the same sex? ‘Marriage’ is a historical word. Always in humanity, and not only within the Church, it’s between a man and a woman… we cannot change that. This is the nature of things. This is how they are. Let’s call them ‘civil unions.’ Lets not play with the truth. It’s true that behind it there is a gender ideology. In books also, children are learning that they can choose their own sex. Why is sex, being a woman or a man, a choice and not a fact of nature? This favors this mistake. But let’s say things as they are: Marriage is between a man and a woman. This is the precise term. Lets call unions between the same sex ‘civil unions’.”
September 14, 2017: In addressing newly ordained bishops, Pope Francis encouraged them to be more respectful of people’s consciences and address people’s concrete realities rather than just pontificating theory at them.
September 19, 2017: The pope changes the name of the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family to the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Matrimonial and Family Science, sparking queries that he might be reviving John Paul’s “Theology of the Body,” a constricting view of sexuality based on the idea of “complementarity” of the sexes.
October 5, 2017: Speaking to the Pontifical Academy for Life, Pope Francis delivers one of his strongest defenses of traditional ideas about gender, stating: “The biologic and psychological manipulation of sexual difference, which biomedical technology allows one to see as open to free choice – which it’s not! – is thus likely to dismantle the source of energy that nourishes the alliance of man and woman and makes it creative and fruitful.”
October 11, 2017: Speaking on the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis stresses the importance of doctrinal development (or change) in the Church.
—Francis DeBernardo and Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 13, 2018