by Chuck Colbert
For the second time in fewer than two months, Pope Francis has spoken kind words of encouragement, indicating a new tone from the Vatican and giving gay Catholics hope for an LGBT-friendly church, even as some voice disappointment Francis has not ended anti-gay teachings.
In a wide-ranging interview, the pope said the Roman Catholic Church has been overly “obsessed” with condemning gay marriage, abortion, and contraception and should shift its focus, emphasizing compassion and mercy rather than “small-minded rules.”
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible,” Francis said in a 12,000-word interview published last week by America, a weekly Jesuit magazine.
“When we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context,” he explained. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
The pope added, “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
Francis also said, “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.”
From coast to coast, the reaction from LGBT Catholic advocates, pastoral ministers, priests, and church observers, even secular gay-rights activists, has been uniformly positive, even as some voice displeasure Francis has not gone far enough in jettisoning Vatican doctrine, which says homosexuality is “objectively disordered,” and its sexual expression is an “intrinsic evil,” while requiring mandatory, lifelong celibacy as the only sexual ethics and morality in full accord with church teaching.
Nevertheless, “Anybody who listens to what Pope Francis is saying” realizes that “fighting gay marriage is not the number one priority of the Catholic Church anymore,” said Jesuit priest, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a policy analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.
Based at Santa Clara University in California until the end of this year, Reese is the author Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.
The pontiff is also saying, Father Reese added, “The tone of the discussion has got to change, if we are going to be true to Pope Francis.”
For far too long, Reese explained, “The first words out of the church’s mouth, in meeting a gay person were, ‘You can’t have sex. You can’t get married.'”
Now, “The first words out of Pope Francis are, “I love you. I want to give you a hug. Jesus loves you,'” said Reese. “This is just a whole different ball game. The model is we are a family, not a political interest group, slugging it out, using any tactic.”
LGBT Catholic Groups
For its part, Equally Blessed, a gay-affirming Catholic coalition, said in a press release, “The pope’s statements are like rain on a parched land for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics and their supporters,” adding, “We yearn for the day when the Catholic hierarchy can simply acknowledge the holiness of our lives and our relationships, as the majority of Catholics in the United States already do, and we pray that this pope will move us closer to that goal.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, an LGBT Catholic advocacy organization, voiced praise for what seems like a fresh start for LGBT Catholics in church relations. “We find much to be hopeful about particularly in the pope’s firm desire that the church be a ‘home for all people,’ and his belief that God looks at LGBT people with love rather than condemnation,” she said.
Similarly, Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry, a gay-friendly Catholic ministry of justice and reconciliation for LGBT Catholics and the church, said the pope’s remarks indicate “a new dawn of hope and promise for LGBT Catholics and their supporters.”
An equally upbeat Arthur Fitzmaurice, resource director for the Berkeley, California-based Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry, said his organization “feels blessed by Pope Francis. We are enthusiastic to have a pope who thinks and feels the way we do. He said we must heal the broken and not begin any conversation by condemnation.”
“We hope Pope Francis’ remarks will begin the healing process for many LGBT Catholics who have felt alienated by the church,” said Fitzmaurice.
Joe Murray of Chicago’s Rainbow Sash Movement, an advocacy organization, voiced praise for the Vatican’s new “welcoming tone,” and views the pope’s “recent interview as a step in the right direction.”
Nonetheless, “Many people have been abused by the church, many were forced to leave the church because of integrity,” said Murray. “The pope’s words will not bear any fruit until he is willing to address the issues of sexism and homophobia.”
The Door Is Open
Specifically addressing homosexuality, the pope said during the interview, “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.”
The Rev. Gary M. Meier, a priest in the St. Louis Archdiocese, who recently came out as gay, said he remains “cautiously optimistic” with the pope’s who-am-I-to-judge approach.
“What he hasn’t yet said is that we are basically wrong about our teaching when it comes to homosexuality as intrinsically disordered,” said Father Meier. “The good news is that the pope won’t be leading the charge with that teaching,” although “unfortunately bishops do.”
Still, Meier remains optimistic the pope’s kindness toward gays “will continue to open up the dialogue between gay Catholics and the hierarchy, which for years has been off the table,” he said.
“At least the door is open,” said Meier.
Still, “The bottom line is that gay people cannot be full members in the church,” he said.
But with “a radical shift in tone,” said Meier, the possibility exists for “conversations to lead to conversion.”
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Meanwhile, the pontiff’s comments have also encouraged gay-rights leaders. “Pope Francis has pressed the reset button on the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of LGBT people, rolling back a years-long campaign at the highest levels of the church to oppose any measure of dignity or equality,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT political organization. “Now its time for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB] to catch-up and drop their opposition to even the most basic protections for LGBT people.”
Griffin was referring to, as one example, the USCCB’s continued opposition to the Employment Non-discrimination Act, proposed federal legislation, which would provide nationwide workplace protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Duddy-Burke of DignityUSA could not agree more with Griffin. “If this is not a call to the bishops to end their anti-gay campaign, I don’t know what is,” she said referring to the pope’s remarks.
It’s as if Francis is giving the bishops “a get-out-of-jail ticket,” said Jesuit priest, the Rev. Donal Godfrey, associate director for faculty and staff, spirituality and ministry, at the University of San Francisco.
“He’s giving them room to get out with dignity and grace,” Father Godfrey said in a telephone interview. “I hope that our bishops are able to take this opportunity and run with it.”
Godfrey is the gay author of Gays and Grays, a 2007 book, based on his doctoral dissertation, about gay men and elderly parishioners finding common ground in the worshipping community at Most Holy Redeemer in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, a gay enclave.
While disappointed there was no change in church teaching on homosexuality, Duddy-Burke said, more important right now is “people will respond to Francis in saying God looks on gay people with love and respect as the new starting point for our relationships between the church and the LGBT community. ”
The Equally Blessed coalition also voiced hope the US bishops take the pontiff’s remarks to heart. In its press release, the organization said, “Pope Francis has sent a clear signal that the [USCCB] and organizations like the Knights of Columbus need to end their multimillion dollar campaign to marginalize LGBT people in the church and the wider society and commit themselves to gaining a deeper understanding of the lives, beliefs and ministries of LGBT people, their families and their friends.”