March 8, 2018. On March 13, 2018 Catholics and many others in the world will mark the fifth anniversary of the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope. What have these five years meant for LGBTQI and Ally Catholics? What can we expect from the next phase of Francis’ Papacy?
From his first appearance where he asked the people of the world to pray for him to his famous “Who am I to judge?” when asked about whether a gay priest could be holy, Pope Francis has set a tone that many people found hopeful and engaging. He certainly has done much that many find inspiring. His personal simplicity, frequent presence among marginalized communities, advocacy for refugees and migrants, calls for nonviolence, and the call for urgency in global stewardship in the encyclical Laudato Si demonstrate leadership on Gospel concern. He has been something of a disruptor of the Curia, demoting Cardinals seen as flaunting wealth and power, and raising up new, pastorally focused bishops in under-represented parts of the Church. Francis has encouraged dialogue and dissent and acknowledges that the Church lives in a complex and rapidly-changing world.
This Pope has broken a number of barriers on LGBTQI issues. Francis is the first Pope to use the term “gay.” He has said that Christians should apologize to gay people, and apparently supported an early draft of a Synod on the Family report that said that gay people have gifts the Church needs and acknowledged there can be grace in same-sex relationships. He met with a transgender person and his fiancée, has friends who are gay and married, and has called on the Church to better accompany families with LGBTQI children.
However, for LGBTQI people and our families, the early hopefulness that Francis’ openness would result in wide pastoral embrace or even changes to longstanding condemnatory dogma has not been realized. He has made inflammatory and hurtful statements, and maintained the traditional teachings on sex, gender, relationships, and marriage. The Pope used his personal authority to promote a successful anti-LGBTQI referendum in Slovakia, preventing same-sex marriage and adoption. He has made numerous comments condemning “gender ideology,” and even said transgender people are as dangerous to society as nuclear weapons. In Uganda, although condemning the death penalty, he referred to LGBTQI people as criminals. He quickly surrendered to conservative outcry about the gay-positive language in the Synod on the Family draft, resulting in a document that offered no tangible steps toward greater inclusion of or support for our community.
A number of Church leaders have been vocal in support of pastoral inclusion of LGBTQI people and families and some have even questioned whether Church teaching and pastoral practice must change in light of changing realities in the world (e.g., legalization of same-sex marriage in many countries). Clearly, Francis’ leadership style has made space for this to happen. The Pope seems untroubled by the fact that Church leaders are taking a variety of approaches to LGBTQI issues. This could lead to new models of pastoral care being developed that may spread to other areas. But will bishops who deny pastoral care and sacraments to LGBTQI people face any censure?
The fact that gender complementarity remains the foundation of the Church’s official approach to human relationships, that homosexuality continues to be named an “objective disorder,” and same-sex relationships remain labelled “intrinsically evil” means that the Catholic Church led by Pope Francis continues to see LGBTQI people as unable to fully embody the Divine, can be subject to what Church leaders call “just discrimination,” and lack access to any type of appeal to canon law. These doctrines continue to drive legal and cultural oppression in many parts of the world and leave LGBTQI people in danger of being targeted for violence, imprisoned as criminals, denied access to health care, housing, education, and employment, and forced into marriage with opposite-sex partners that can be destructive to both adults and to the children they may produce. They contribute to mental health problems, addictions, suicidality, and to isolation from the Church community.
Francis is clearly a man and a leader moved by the needs of the poor and marginalized. If in the remaining period of his papacy he can come to understand the damage that the Church’s dogma and practices do to individuals, families, and entire communities, there may be an opportunity for real change. On his fifth anniversary, we offer, once again, to enter into respectful dialogue with the Pope and other Church leaders, so that they can become more keenly aware of their responsibilities to the LGBTQI community, to our families, and to the Church we are a part of. We call on Pope Francis to meet with LGBTQI people and families at the Vatican and during his travels in order to come to know our hopes, dreams, challenges, and joys.