Five years ago, Pope Francis grabbed international headlines when he responded to a reporter’s in-flight question about gay priests by saying, "If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?"
Media outlets, LGBT activists, and Catholics around the world speculated about whether this offhand remark, and casually unprecedented use of “gay” by the pontiff, signaled a significant break from the Vatican’s unequivocal condemnation of same-sex relationships, and more acceptance of LGBT people in the world’s largest Christian denomination. Even this publication celebrated the import of Pope Francis’ remark by naming him as its 2013 Person of the Year.
The Advcoate noted the comment’s potential for shaping the global response to LGBT people by writing, “The remaining holdouts for LGBT acceptance in religion, the ones who block progress in the work left to do, will more likely be persuaded by a figure they know. In the same way that President Obama transformed politics with his evolution on LGBT civil rights, a change from the pope could have a lasting effect on religion.”
However, in a book released in Italy on December 1, 2018, Pope Francis issues an explicitly negative judgment against gay and lesbian people in the Catholic priesthood and as members of religious communities of sisters and brothers. Media reports based on translation of the original Italian say that the Pope writes that gay and lesbian people should not apply for or be admitted to the Catholic priesthood or religious communities because “in consecrated and priestly life, there is no room for that kind of affection.” He also reportedly wrote, “In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the church.”
These statements seem to demonstrate that the Catholic Church’s leader is conceding to traditionalist forces within the hierarchy that see more openness to LGBT people as threatening to the church’s global unity and authority. This is troublesome on many levels. The Pope’s comments reinforce negative and long-discredited stereotypes that have led to discrimination and violence against our community. They are demeaning to all the lesbian sisters and gay priests and brothers who have faithfully served the church throughout its history, and to all who are currently preparing for such ministries.
As for homosexuality being seen as “fashionable,” Pope Francis seems to be mistaking genuine but limited progress in achieving basic civil and human rights for LGBT people in some countries as a frivolous fad or trend. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any gains that have been made in achieving LGBT rights in recent decades have come at the cost of incalculable pain and sacrifice by LGBT people.
Perhaps of most immediate concern, though, is whether the Pope’s words foreshadow the approach the Vatican will be taking in the upcoming “emergency” meeting to discuss the church’s response to the ever-expanding revelations about the extent of the sexual abuse of minors by priests, and what the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report termed the “systematic cover-up” of the abuse by bishops and Vatican officials. More than a dozen additional states’ attorneys general have initiated broad-based investigations here in the US, and new revelations about abuse seem to come from other countries every month. In response to the extraordinary pressure the Catholic Church is feeling, the Pope has summoned the heads of every national bishops’ conference to Rome in February 2019 for a strategy session.
By intimating that gay priests and and lesbian and gay religious sisters and brothers are less able than their straight colleagues to manage their sexuality in ways consistent with their vows, is the Pope signaling that he will follow the lead of those who have been vocal in blaming the sex abuse scandal on gay priests? Has he concluded that the way to save the church is to scapegoat LGBT people? This would be a vilely sinful calculation, and one that will further alienate vast numbers of Catholics, many of whom see the upcoming summit as the final chance for the hierarchy to take meaningful action to address the disgraceful behavior of so many perpetrators and enablers. It would be a transparent failure of leadership to offer a simplistic and disproved excuse, rather than to reform the structures that allowed the culture of abuse to flourish for so many decades.
Every time the institutional church refuses to move towards an embrace of LGBT people, as happened at the recent Synod on Youth in Rome, it crushes the spirit of LGBT Catholics and allies, and loses adherents. Francis’s judgmental stance in his new book will be the proverbial last straw for another group of Catholics who have tried to persist in their faith. At times like these, it can be difficult to hold onto the deep spirituality and social justice tradition that we believe Catholicism at its best still offers, despite the church’s grievous institutional sins in failing to recognize the full, God-given equality and dignity of women and LGBT people, and to protect its most vulnerable members from appalling sexual abuse. I hope these disillusioned Catholics can find intentional Eucharistic communities, Dignity chapters, Women-Church communities, or other Catholic groups that embody the best of our faith while rejecting the hierarchy’s commitment to protecting their positions at the expense of honesty, accountability, and serving the needs of the people of the church.
MARIANNE DUDDY-BURKE is the executive director of Dignity USA, which advocates for LGBTQ equality in the Catholic Church.