In an interview released yesterday, Pope Francis has affirmed the need for pastoral care benefitting lesbian and gay people, but again attacked “gender ideology.
La Civilta Cattolica, a semi-official Vatican outlet, published a transcript of the pope’s recent conversation with Jesuits in Slovakia during his recent visit to that country. In one question, Francis was asked about “what vision of Church can we follow,” with an emphasis on diversity in the church. The pope replied, in part:
“You said something very important, which identifies the suffering of the Church at this moment: the temptation to go backward. We are suffering this today in the Church: the ideology of going backward. . .
“That is why today we look back to the past: to seek security. It frightens us to celebrate before the people of God who look us in the face and tell us the truth. It frightens us to go forward in pastoral experiences. I think of the work that was done – Father Spadaro was present – at the Synod on the Family to make it understood that couples in second unions are not already condemned to hell. It frightens us to accompany people with sexual diversity. We are afraid of the crossroads and paths that Paul VI spoke of. This is the evil of this moment, namely, to seek the path in rigidity and clericalism, which are two perversions.”
In another question, Francis is asked about the forms of ideological colonization about which he has spoken repeatedly, including the so-called “gender ideology.” The pope replied:
“The ‘gender’ ideology of which you speak is dangerous, yes. As I understand it, it is so because it is abstract with respect to the concrete life of a person, as if a person could decide abstractly at will if and when to be a man or a woman. Abstraction is always a problem for me. This has nothing to do with the homosexual issue, though. If there is a homosexual couple, we can do pastoral work with them, move forward in our encounter with Christ. When I talk about ideology, I’m talking about the idea, the abstraction in which everything is possible, not about the concrete life of people and their real situation.”
This interview with Slovakian Jesuits exemplifies the line which Pope Francis walks when it comes to LGBTQ issues, namely affirming the need for pastoral care while criticizing so-called “gender ideology.” In doing so, the pope perpetuates his mixed record. For many Catholics, Francis is making unprecedented strides to a more welcoming church. For some, condemnatory teachings undercut any positive statements. For others, the ambiguity inherent to the pope’s approach just leaves them confused. And for conservatives, the mere suggestion of better pastoral care is anathema.
To understand Pope Francis, we must acknowledge that he, like the church, is processing social progress on LGBTQ equality in real time. Doctrinal development is a perpetual process, and defining teachings is the end result of the church’s discernment of a given issue, not its beginning. It is a circle in which people’s lived realities are taken up in theological reflection, then defined in teaching by the magisterium, and then received (or not) by the people of God. While inopportune, and a times a bit too wide, there is an inherent gap in this process between theory and life as it plays out over time.
Francis is embodying this gap. It is clear that Catholics in the pews know far more about transgender people than their church leaders, including the pope. We know that trans people do not make a haphazard choice, but come to know themselves in deeper ways that are then given expression in the world. We know there is little to no basis to the “gender ideology” about which church leaders speak. And in this shift, the church is already changing even if the magisterial teachings have yet to do so.
So, while Francis gets it wrong at points, he is creating space for discernment and doctrinal development to occur. It is not his stance on one issue or another, though attention to these is certainly important, but the broader structural and cultural shifts he seeks that defines his papacy. The Synod on Synodality process set to begin soon exemplifies this goal, and it could be revolutionary. There will be gaps as we go along, but this is always the case in church history. And it is in those gaps where we, as LGBTQ people and allies, must keep working for a church that is, in Pope Francis words, “a home for all.”
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 22, 2021