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The Flip-Flopper of Our Time: Pope Francis

The Flip-Flopper of Our Time: Pope Francis


As Italy struggles to enact civil unions, the pontiff continues to send mixed messages.

Italy is one of the last major European countries that doesn't offer relationship recognition to same-sex couples, even though the majority of Italians support such rights, according to a 2014 poll.

In January 2015 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy was in violation of human rights law because it does not recognize civil partnerships or same-sex marriage. This week, to the cheers and adulation of supporters of LGBTQ civil rights, the Senate will finally consider a bill providing for the legalization of civil unions.

One person you can expect to oppose the measure is Pope Francis. And in anticipation of the upcoming debate the pontiff made his position abundantly clear: "There can be no confusion between the family God wants and any other type of union," the pontiff said last week, addressing the Vatican court. "The family, founded on indissoluble matrimony that unites and allows procreation, is part of God's dream and that of his church for the salvation of humanity."

The country, however, has a more expansive view of family than Pope Francis does.

In January 2013, for example, a civil court granted sole custody of a child to a lesbian mother in spite of the father's claim that the mother's sexual orientation "would be dangerous for the child." And in July 2013, to the shock and awe of its citizens, the Court of Bologna chose a gay couple to be foster parents of a 3-year-old.

I recall remarks Pope Francis made while flying home after a weeklong visit to Brazil in 2013, responding to a question about a possible "gay lobby" in the Vatican. His answer set off global shock waves.

"When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby," he said. "If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them?"

This public statement is the most LGBTQ-affirmative one the world has ever heard from the Roman Catholic Church. Partly in response, this publication named Pope Francis its 2013 Person of the Year.

Pope Francis continues to command attention around the world with his liberal-leaning pronouncements, but the pontiff is a complicated, if not confusing, figure to LGBTQ people. On the surface, Francis displays a pastoral countenance to his papacy that extends to all of our community.

Sadly, his welcoming tone doesn't match up with the unwelcoming church policies he upholds -- especially when it comes to "the family of God," a term the pope used two years ago.

Last year the Meeting of Families in Philadelphia included only one workshop on LGBTQ issues -- a panel with a celibate gay Catholic and his mother, and no workshop on LGBTQ families. But his point about LGBTQ families and marriage equality got across loud and clear during his talk to Congress with his subtle jab at same-sex marriage: "I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family."

While it might be argued that the Pope Francis's understanding of human sexual orientation is expanding, and his concern for the dignity and humanity of LGBTQ people is genuine, the pontiff is still a doctrinal conservative, one who holds largely to the Catholic Church's universal catechism on homosexuality.

His views on gay priests, while not quite in lockstep with those of Catholic LGBTQ parishioners and allies, are nonetheless the most progressive of any pontiff in history. Activists and supporters of the "gay lobby" in the Curia emphatically state that this brave and visible group is essential to the running of the Vatican even as these men are scapegoated for many of the ills of the church.

This pope, like the previous one, is using his papal authority to hold back the tides of modernity, but with a friendlier and pastoral facade. And the signs were there long before Francis became pope.

Case in point: Francis expressed support for civil unions in his native Argentina back in 2010, at least according to reports. But same-sex marriage was a different story.

"Let's not be naive, we're not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God," he said at the time. "We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God."

But then, in December 2013, the pontiff aptly stated in a magazine interview that "the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards" should the Catholic Church, in this 21st century, continue on the antimodernity track of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

It's not enough for Francis to say he embraces our community. He must also do it.

REV. IRENE MONROE is a writer, speaker, and theologian living in Cambridge, Mass.

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