In a move that disappointed LGBT Catholics, Pope Francis this week praised those backing ballot measures in Slovakia that would not only ban same-sex marriage but also prohibit same-sex couples from adopting and allow parents to withdraw their children from sex education classes.
The pope made the statement Wednesday as pilgrims from Slovakia, a heavily Roman Catholic country, visited the Vatican, BuzzFeed reports. "I greet the pilgrims from Slovakia and, through them, I wish to express my appreciation to the entire Slovak church, encouraging everyone to continue their efforts in defense of the family, the vital cell of society," he told the audience.
While the Pope has never supported marriage equality or adoption rights, his talking more frequently about those views discouraged activists who had been grateful for his emphasis on a more welcoming tone.
Slovakians will vote on the ballot measures Saturday. The Eastern European nation does not allow same-sex couples to marry, so the one asking if marriage should be defined as a male-female union "won't change the legal status quo," BuzzFeed notes. The other two measures, on adoption rights and sex education, would make a difference in national policy.
For the proposals to become law, they must not only receive a majority vote, but at least 50 percent of the nation's registered voters must participate. The Slovakia vote follows one in another Eastern European country, Croatia, where citizens in December 2013 voted to ban same-sex marriage. However, Croatia's Parliament last summer did approve civil unions for same-sex couples.
The impetus for the ballot measures came from Slovak citizens, not the church, said Father Martin Kramara, spokesman for the Conference of Slovak Bishops, the governing body of Catholicism in Slovakia. But the conference has endorsed the proposals and raised money for a group backing them, called the Alliance for Family, BuzzFeed reports. Also, Slovakian LGBT activists told the site that an antigay U.S. group, Alliance Defending Freedom, has encouraged opposition to gay rights in the nation.
When BuzzFeed asked Kramara how support for the measures fit with the same conciliatory statements Pope Francis has made about LGBT people, he said he would not want the proposals to result in "any animosity against homosexually oriented people." Also, he said the church does not oppose sex education, even if the curriculum includes homosexuality, but such classes should emphasize the important role of heterosexual marriage in family life, as children "have the natural right to a mother and father."
American Catholic advocates for LGBT equality expressed disappointment with the pope's endorsement of the ballot questions. "Pope Francis has made some amazing gestures of openness and welcome to LGBT people, but a statement like this shows that he still has a lot to learn," Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, told The Advocate.
"It's pretty clear that since the synod on the family last fall ... the Catholic right has really gotten to the Vatican and to Pope Francis," said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, in an Advocate interview. "It's really crushing to a lot of people who were hoping to see policy change."
Indeed, despite the pope's statements like "Who am I to judge?" about gay priests and that "God's not afraid of new things," the church continues to oppose same-sex marriage and expects the faithful to be celibate except within a heterosexual marriage. The pope needs to hear from Catholics in same-sex unions as well as theologians and laypeople who support LGBT equality if anything is going to change, both activists said. "The official Catholic teaching on marriage is really out of step with what most Catholic theologians think and write today," DeBernardo said.
The second session of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, a follow-up to last fall's event, will be held in Rome in October, and DeBernardo expressed the hope that the pope would meet with same-sex couples there, so he would be talking with them instead of about them. Duddy-Burke added that the World Meeting of Families in September in Philadelphia, which Pope Francis is set to attend, would provide opportunities for him to meet with same-sex couples and equality supporters; DignityUSA has recruited several to attend. "We have to be very clear in confronting this mythology about families," she said. "Family takes an enormous variety of forms."
Still, while disappointing to hopeful Catholic activists, the pope's statement doesn't exactly come as a surprise. Wrote Elizabeth Scalia for Patheos, for example: "I'm not sure anyone -- except the most extreme and unrealistic of Francis' haters and admirers, both of whom seem to believe that he intends to upend church teaching any minute, now -- would expect him to say differently."