Artillery Row

Pope Francis: the LGBT-friendly pontiff

Do the actions of the current pontiff signify shifting attitudes in the Catholic Church towards same-sex relationships?

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013, he told the world that he wanted to change the Roman Catholic Church and spoke of the “God of Surprises”. The Argentinian Jesuit is certainly a man of his word, because last week he surprised a great many people.

Speaking to parents of LGBTQ children he said, “God loves your children as they are. The Church loves your children as they are, because they are children of God.” This may sound relatively bland and unadventurous, but it is actually quite extraordinarily radical for any Catholic leader, let alone one who is considered to be the direct successor to St. Peter.

It’s not the first time that Francis has used such language. Shortly after he was elected, he said that sexual orientation was all but irrelevant when it came to being a good Catholic and that, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” In 2018 when he met with Juan Carlos Cruz, the gay man who was the main whistleblower in the Chilean clerical sex abuse and cover-up scandal, he is reported to have said, “Look Juan Carlos, the Pope loves you this way. God made you like this, and he loves you.”

It will take a revolution in philosophy to shift the Roman Catholic Church away from the status quo

In the past, however, Rome has issued what it euphemistically calls “clarifications” and has spoken of inaccuracies due to translation. Not this time. It’s also deeply relevant that the parents to whom Francis spoke were from an Italian group called Tenda di Gionata or Jonathan’s Tent. It’s a reference to the relationship between David and Jonathan in scripture, which may or may not have been more than platonic; but David’s comment that “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” does rather give one pause for thought.

The group welcomes and affirms LGBTQ Christians, whereas Catholic teaching has always distinguished between being homosexual and acting out on one’s feelings and emotions. In other words, if you’re gay you have to be celibate, pretend, or try to change. Because, according to the Catholic catechism, homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law”, and any orientation outside of heterosexuality is “objectively disordered.”

Supporters of this teaching argue that there is a clear distinction between being gay and being in a gay relationship, between “the sin and the sinner” but it’s a pretty thin if not repugnant response. It also ignores the reality of loving, sacrificial, God-honouring same-sex relationships, and the self-evident truth that people are born gay. So to compare them to alcoholics or thieves who are implicitly good but tempted by evil is as facile as it is insensitive. One’s sexuality is inherent, not a bad habit that should be resisted. That’s a truth that Francis seems to embrace.

Frankly, it’s also deeply hypocritical in that most credible studies on the subject concur that between a quarter and half of all Roman Catholic clergy are gay. In the book The Changing Face of the Priesthood (2000), for example, Father Donald Cozzens estimates that as many as 58% of priests are gay, and that percentages are higher for younger priests. Many of them are likely celibate, but we know that many are not. Cardinals, bishops, and even Popes know that too.

I experienced what is best described as a spiritual and emotional epiphany

I know as well because until seven years ago I was not only a Roman Catholic, and a fairly conservative one, but the author of best-selling books about Catholic teaching, a columnist for numerous Catholic publications, and extremely popular and busy on the Catholic speaking circuit. I experienced what is best described as a spiritual and emotional epiphany, one that was in many ways deeply painful and costly but also led me to what I regard as a deeper Christianity and, eventually, ordination in the Anglican priesthood. Yet I still have enormous affection for what is good and great within Catholicism, which is why its intransigence on this theme is so frustrating.

Apart from anything else, the subject of homosexuality is hardly mentioned in the Bible and when it is discussed, the context is complicated. What are known as the “gotcha” verses from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures are almost always quoted with very little understanding of what they mean. They generally refer, when they actually describe same-sex relationships at all, to rape and abuse; and they’re usually listed with other ancient prohibitions, some of which condone slavery and the most severe forms of sexism and violence.

Jesus doesn’t mention homosexuality at all and is actually quite breathtakingly indifferent to the sex lives of those around him. The Gospels discuss love, the poor, the need for justice, the dangers of wealth and materialism, and the centrality of peace and forgiveness, but never homosexuality. As for St. Paul, his very few references are to straight men using catamites and to the dangers of pagan initiation rites. We can take the Bible seriously or we can take it literally, but not both.

So, what happens now? There’s been the usual backlash from traditionalists in the Catholic Church, but they’ve largely given up on the pontiff and are, forgive the harshness, waiting for the man to die. Their hopes are for the next holder of the keys to the kingdom being a conservative, and even though the College of Cardinals has seen some liberal appointees recently that’s no guarantee that Francis will not be succeeded by someone far more to the right. The Holy Spirit, it seems, moves in mysterious ways.

Francis has opened the door on this issue more than any Pope in history, but the teachings of his church still places procreation and what it calls “complementarity” at the centre of its views on sexuality. Attitudes may change, courageous clerics may evince more compassion and understanding, but ultimately it will take a revolution in philosophy to shift the Roman Catholic Church away from the status quo. I wonder if God doesn’t sometimes look down and wonder what all the bloody fuss is about?

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