by Chuck Colbert
In a decision that surprised, if not shocked the one billion Roman Catholics worldwide, Pope Benedict XVI said on Monday that he was stepping down.
News of his resignation came during a meeting of Vatican cardinals. “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” Benedict said, according to the English language text of his remarks from Reuters.
Benedict’s departure takes effect on Feb. 28, marking the first time in six centuries that a pontiff has resigned.
The 85-year-old pope spoke of his decision to resign as one of “great importance for the life of the Church.”
A March conclave, a meeting of the College of Cardinals, will convene to elect the pope’s successor, perhaps before Easter, March 31
Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected pope on April 19, 2005.
From 1981 until his election, Ratzinger served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the church’s doctrinal enforcement arm. In both roles as prefect and pontiff, he was a decidedly conservative theologian, crafting increasingly hardline doctrine against homosexuality.
Nevertheless, Benedict’s resignation prompted measured reactions from some LGBT Catholics.
“I think the pope’s resigning is one of the noblest things he had done in his papacy,” said Ernest L. Camisa, secretary of Dignity San Francisco.
Another gay Catholic, Eugene McMullan agreed. “I can only feel a profound sense of relief, gratitude and renewed hope on hearing the news that Pope Benedict has resigned,” he said.
“This should be good news for everyone,” added McMullan, who is a lead organizer with the advocacy group Catholics for Marriage Equality in California.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, said in a statement that while members of his organization “are praying for the future of the church and for the pope’s health,” they “are praying, too, for LGBT Catholics and their families and friends, whose lives were made more difficult living under Benedict’s reign.”
As DeBernardo noted, “For the last three decades, Benedict has been one of the main architect’s of the Vatican’s policies against LGBT people.
Based in Mount Rainier, Maryland, New Ways Ministry is a national gay-positive ministry of education, healing, reconciliation, and justice for lesbian and gay Catholics, families, and friends and the wider church.
It was under then Cardinal Ratzinger’s leadership, for example, when the CDF issued a 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.”
LGBT Catholics often refer to the document as the “Halloween Letter” because of its October issue date.
The letter speaks of “objective disorder” to describe the “homosexual inclination” and “intrinsic moral evil” to explain “homosexual acts.”
Those harsh words influenced recent 1990’s editions of the Catholic Church’s Catechism, calling gays to chastity, which in effect requires of them mandatory life-long celibacy as the only way to sexual morality.
Dignity San Francisco’s Camisa took issue with the call to chastity. “To enforce a vow of celibacy or chastity on gay people who have no choice in the matter of being gay is inhumane,” he said.
McMullan went further. “The animus of Halloween Letter made homosexual orientation a special disposition to evil, almost a second original sin,” he said.
Under Cardinal Ratzinger’s tenure, the Vatican articulated its unambiguous opposition to same-sex marriage.
“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar to or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and the family,” he wrote in the June 2003 CDF document, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons.”
“Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural law,” Ratzinger explained.
The same 2003 document also denounced gay and lesbian couples who are parents. “Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children,” Ratzinger wrote.
More recently, in his Jan. 7, 2013 “State of the World” address, Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against global efforts to extend civil-marriage rights to same-sex couples, naming same-sex marriage a threat to “human dignity and the future of humanity itself.”
Boston-based Charles Martel, co-founder of Catholics for Marriage Equality, an advocacy organization, offered an assessment of the pope’s marriage equality legacy.
“In terms of marriage, one of the things that Benedict has done is to speak about gay people in the language of being less than what God intended,” said Martel. “The pope seemed incapable of recognizing that any ministry to gay people requires not merely respect, but to acknowledge a sense of wholeness in the person. That is a very sad legacy indeed.”
The executive director of Medford-based DignityUSA, an LGBT Catholic advocacy organization, was even more pointed. “I think it would be difficult to think of a religious figure who has a more damaging legacy for LGBT people than Benedict,” Marianne Duddy-Burke told the Boston Globe.
For years the Vatican has steadfastly stood against the use of condoms in the fight to stop the spread of HIV infection. During a 2009 trip to Africa, Benedict said condom use might even make the AIDS epidemic worse.
But in what appeared to be a slight relaxing of Church policy, the pope said that in the case of male prostitution, condom use might be acceptable.
“There can be single justified cases,” Benedict said, “for example when a prostitute uses a condom, and this can be the first step toward a moralization, a first act of responsibility in developing anew an awareness of the fact that not everything is permissible and that we cannot do everything we want.”
The pope’s comments, reported by any number of mainstream media outlets in November 2010, came from a lengthy interview with a German journalist.
Not all Catholics agree Benedict XVI’s departure is good news.
“I think not,” said Phil Attey, a gay man and pro-equality Catholic activist and former executive and co-founder of Catholics for Equality.
He explained, “What it means to me is that the most hateful and mean spirited anti-gay pope in the history of the Catholic Church is so determined to continue his reign of terror beyond his life on earth, that he’s going to orchestrate his succession, ensuring the next pope carries on his mission to demonize, marginalize, and oppress every gay man who comes out of the closet and demands to be treated as equals among God’s children.”
“In short, it’s likely the next pope is even more hateful and mean spirited than this one,” said Attey.
And yet for all the Vatican’s anti-gay rhetoric over several decades, pro-LGBT Catholic advocacy organizations voiced hope.
“We pray the new pope will listen to, and know or get to know LGBT people, particularly those who have established loving and faithful households with children, and that he will encourage bishops to do likewise,” said Mary Ellen and Casey Lopata, co-founders of Fortunate Families and parents of a gay son.
The Rochester, New York-based Fortunate Families is resource and networking ministry with Catholic parents of LGBT children.
For its part, the Catholic group Equally Blessed also voiced hope for a brighter future with a listening pope.
Equally Blessed is a coalition of four LGBT-friendly Catholic advocacy organizations, including DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, Call to Action, and New Ways Ministry.
“With the pope’s impending resignation, the church has an opportunity to turn away from his oppressive policies toward LGBT Catholics, and their families and friends,” the coalition said in a statement.
It continues, “We pray for a pope who is willing to listen to and learn from all of God’s people. We pray for a pope who will realize that in promoting discrimination against LGBT people, the church inflicts pain on marginalized people, alienates the faithful, and lends moral credibility to reactionary political movements across the globe.”