Can the Catholic Church be saved?

While most gay Catholics agree that the new pope is likely to be conservative, some find hope in a groundswell of support for gay equality in the parishes of Western nations

BY John Caldwell

April 25 2005 12:00 AM ET

Distraught over
the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of gay
people, 40-year-old Sicilian native Alfredo Ormando entered
St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City on January
13, 1998, and set himself on fire. He died in a nearby
hospital 10 days later. The Vatican remained silent,
issuing only banal statements denying any connection between
the church and the suicide.
“John Paul II never recognized
[Ormando’s] death,” says the Reverend
Mel White, director of the Virginia-based gay religious
advocacy group Soulforce, who was among those who protested
outside the Vatican after Ormando’s immolation.
Instead, the pope’s many public condemnations
of homosexuality continued. In fact, they got much worse.
John Paul II, the third-longest-sitting pope in
the Catholic Church’s history, died April 2 at
age 84. Disenfranchised, angry, and in many cases
bitter, many of the world’s Christian gays and
lesbians were quick to condemn him as millions of others
mourned. “The many tributes to him left me
sad,” White says. “He was the most
influential homophobe in the 20th century. He did more to
set back our cause than any other religious leader. His
influence on a billion people turned back the progress
we had made in ways we will regret for another century.”
No one can be certain what the next pope will be
like—the College of Cardinals was just
beginning its conclave at press time—but given
that 113 of the 115 cardinals electing him were put in place
by John Paul II, most agree that he will likely be
conservative and not gay-friendly. “The chances
of the new pope being liberal are slim,” says
Paul Lakeland, 58, a professor of Catholic studies at
Fairfield University in Connecticut. “We have to
assume that he will be a moderate at best.”
Indeed, moderate Catholics, particularly in the
United States and Western Europe, are hoping the new
pope will be more like John XXIII, who became pope in
1958 and quickly set about modernizing the church. Known as
“the great reformer,” he convened the Second
Vatican Council in 1962 and spoke of “throwing
open the windows of the church.” Social
organizations were formed, and languages other than
Latin were for the first time permitted in the celebration
of Mass. John XXIII’s successor, Pope Paul VI,
completed the Vatican II documents, which sought to
create a less dogmatic, more pastoral approach to
Catholicism. He was followed by John Paul I, elected in
August 1978—also a beloved reformer and
progressive. He was the first pontiff to go on record
saying the church needed to show more compassion to
gays and lesbians. But hopes of a move in that direction
came to end when John Paul I died suddenly a month
into his papacy.
That October, John Paul II became the first
Polish pope in history, and he soon embarked on an
unprecedented and unremitting campaign to condemn gay
sex, gay relationships, and gay parents that began with his
“Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the
Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,”
coauthored in 1986 by his staunchly antigay confidant,
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany. The document labeled
gay sex “an intrinsic moral evil” and
homosexual attraction “an objective
disorder.” Support of U.S. Catholic’s for
the Vatican’s position soon dropped from 68% to 58%.

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