Pope Francis Affirms Need for Lesbian/Gay Pastoral Care, Criticizes “Gender Ideology”

Pope Francis

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

6 replies
  1. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    I think terms can sometimes be counterproductive. For example, defund the police is a term that sounds like eliminating the police. Gender ideology is as about as helpful as nail in shoe. Francis is doing his level best to live Jesus so maybe instead of saying he’s wrong transgender folks need to do a better job explaining their reality to those whose reality simply has never and does not now understand transgender reality. In short, it’s not enough to stand up and say here I am deal with it. Dialogue is a two way street.

    DUANE SHERRY says:

    Re: “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.”

    Thank you, Robert Shine!

  3. Tim MacGeorge
    Tim MacGeorge says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I had a very similar reaction when I read about the Pope’s gathering and discussion with his Slovak confreres. I think you are correct in noting that Francis is “creating space for discernment,” even though his current understanding of some issues is limited or incomplete (as is the case for all of us!).

    In particular, I see this incompleteness (and openness) here: “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.”

    Perhaps LGBTQ+ folks do ourselves a disservice whenever we speak about gender or sexual orientation as a “choice.” These are not so much choices as they are awareness of who we know ourselves to be. The “choice,” if there is one, is whether we choose to live consistent with that self-awareness. As the Pope says (I think correctly), that a person cannot “decide abstractly at will” regarding one’s gender. Where the Church needs to grow is to listen to the real, lived experience of LGBTQ+ people, to hear the about the “concrete life of a person” who self-awareness does not fit neatly into proscribed boxes. The Church needs to learn that the range of diversity in human sexuality is much greater than two, and that the one who gets to decide where one is on that range is the individual person, not society.

  4. Lindsey Pasquale
    Lindsey Pasquale says:

    It was nice to see the Pope specifically make some of the comments he made. Coupled with other comments directed at certain US Catholic media establishments, it is something that can be built off of.

    But make no mistake – this comes off as yet another claim that isolates the “T” from the “LGB”. The page of the hymnal is a tough one to listen to because in all these years, it still shows no signs of growth.

  5. Susan Grimes
    Susan Grimes says:

    “rigidity and clericalism, which are two perversions”
    Beautifully said, Holy Father.
    Now if the Church could get an intensive course in 21st century human sexuality, we might get somewhere.

  6. James Gerardi
    James Gerardi says:

    This is by far the clearest statement I’ve seen yet on the position of Francis, the forces pulling at him, and the dynamics involved in reconciling doctrine with advancing knowledge of lived human experience. If his hangup is a misunderstanding of transgenderism, maybe someone should send him a good book on the subject, preferably in Spanish. Seriously.


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