Benedict XVI’s Death Highlights the Church’s Changes on LGBTQ+ Issues

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis

The decline and death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made big headlines last week, first when Pope Francis asked for prayers for the former pontiff when his health began to deteriorate, and on Saturday when he passed from this life.  But once the news of his death was reported, very little commentary has been written, and what little there has been has focused on the historical nature of his resignation and his failure to deal with  clergy sexual abuse.  The other topic of the commentary has been that he was primarily a scholar, not a church leader.

I’m not quite sure what might have caused the lack of commentary.  Perhaps it was because his death occurred on a worldwide holiday weekend, during a traditiionally slow news period, so journalists and commentators may have been slow to respond.  Maybe it was the fact that his most significant written contributions of his papacy tended to be theological and esoteric.  A shy man by nature, Benedict’s lack of charisma and the fact that he was not a public personality like his predecessor or his successor may also have contributed to the sparse commentary about his death.

When I heard the news of Benedict’s death, I feared that many of those who were hurt by his policies and teaching would find this occasion to be an opportunity to repeat their strong criticism’s of him which they proclaimed while he was pope.  Instead, it seems that most of those who disagreed with Benedict have acknowledged his death simply with sorrow, even as they recounted the harm he caused them.

I think the main reason is that since Benedict had already resigned almost ten years ago, his death does not significantly alter church governance. As noted, he had an outsized influence on the most negative policies and teachings concerning LGBTQ+ people.  But his passing also seems to be a minor event even for Catholics concerned with LGBTQ+ equality.

When Pope Francis came on the scene,  there were fears that he might continue Benedict’s negative approach to LGBTQ+ issues.  But his statements and actions over the past decade have proven otherwise.  While Francis may not have made the changes that many Catholic LGBTQ+ advocates pray for, the difference between his approach to LGBTQ+to issues and that of Benedict is like night and day.

Benedict’s death highlighted that difference.  While he approached these issues like a scholar, Francis’ approach is that of a pastor.  Benedict  emphasized tradition and continuity, while Francis has encouraged new ideas.  The German pope was known for having silenced theologians and censured church leaders, the Argentinian pope has stretched out a hand to many of these same people.  Francis has called for wide discussion in the church, including on LGBTQ+ issues, where Benedict had tried to close such conversations.  Benedict stressed authority, Francis stresses conscience.

The most significant thing that his death has highlighted for me is how far Catholicism’s approach to LGBTQ+ issues has changed in the ten years since his resignation.  We have a pope who has met with and corresponded with LGBTQ+ people and their advocates.  LGBTQ+ issues were discussed openly at the synods on the family and the synod on youth, and promise to be a major discussion point during the synod on synodality, based on how often people have raised these issues in local synod conversations.  Bishops, archbishops, and cardinals have made statements in support of same-gender couples and love, and they have called for re-evaluating the church’s teaching about such relationships.  At least here in the U.S. and in other spots around the globe, the development of LGBTQ+ parish ministry has exploded.

If a little over ten years ago, back in January of 2013, someone had told me within ten years we would see even a fraction of those changes mentioned in the previous paragraph, I would have laughed out loud.  Even though I am often accused of being overly optimistic about the church, while living in the church while Benedict was pope, I could never have imagined that such changes would have happened so widely and quickly.

In the late 19th century, the church underwent a similar sudden transformation when Pope Leo XII issued Rerum Novarum, the first encyclical in what would become a series of documents over the next century developing Catholic social teaching.  Leo’s emphasis on the rights of workers, his support of labor unions, his critique of capitalism and private property, and his introduction of the principle of subsidiarity which called for decisions to be made at the most appropriate local level–all of these were diametrically opposed to his predecessor Pope Pius IX.  The church experienced a momentous “about face” in its approach to society–and over the next 100+ years, it would further develop and refine these teachings.

I think a similar dynamic has taken place between the papacies of Benedict and Francis when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues.  We are witnessing an “about face” that is only just beginning, and I believe will continue to develop in the coming decades.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 2, 2023

Editor’s Note: In the coming week, Bondings 2.0 will provide synopses of any additional commentaries on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s legacy on LGBTQ+ issues. 

For previous Bondings 2.0 posts on Benedict’s passing:

December 31, 2022: New Ways Ministry Marks the Passing of Benedict XVI

January 1, 2023: Benedict XVI in the Company of LGBTQ+ Saints

1 reply
    DON E SIEGAL says:

    Benedict XVI’s Death and the Church’s Changes on LGBTQ+ Issues

    “[O]nce the news of his death was reported, very little commentary has been written, and what little there has been has focused on the historical nature of his resignation and his failure to deal with clergy sexual abuse. The other topic of the commentary has been that he was primarily a scholar, not a church leader.”

    On Sunday 1-January 2023, Sylvia Poggioli, on NPR’s Weekend Edition—Sunday had a comprehensive report on the former popes life and his experience as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Including his harmful document on homosexuality:
    “As Vatican doctrinal watchdog, Ratzinger became a polarizing figure: He disciplined dissident theologians, and he upheld church opposition to female priests and married priests as well as same-sex marriage. In a 1986 document, he called homosexuality an ‘objective disorder and an intrinsic moral evil.’”


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