Like the shot heard round the world, “Who am I to judge?” has, without doubt, come to define Pope Francis. His answer to a question about gay priests, asked by a reporter during a press conference on the plane ride back to Rome from World Youth Day celebrations in July 2013, was reprinted in headlines all over the globe. These five words represent an unambiguous departure from the harsh language of his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, toward LGBT persons.
A mere nine months after his election to the papacy, Time magazine named Pope Francis its Person of the Year, in part for his welcome of LGBT people. The Advocate, the leading LGBT magazine, chose him as the single most influential person of 2013 for LGBT people, claiming that, because of Francis, “a significant and unprecedented shift took place this year in how LGBT people are considered by one of the world’s largest faith communities.” Pope Francis is turning into a rock star pontiff as he takes his place on the cover of the Rolling Stone magazine alongside other pop icons of American culture.
Equally Blessed, a coalition of four Catholic groups (Call to Action, Dignity, Fortunate Families, and New Ways Ministry) with a special outreach to LGBT persons and their allies, stated that the pope’s statements are “like rain on a parched land” for their constituents.
Pope Francis has given courage to thousands of Catholics who have been ministering with LGBT persons, many of whom have been penalized by church authorities who do not share Pope Francis’ welcoming vision. For LGBT advocates, Pope Francis is reinvigorating the Spirit called forth by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.
The First Year
Pope Francis is the first pope to publicly use the word “gay.” And this, in his first year in 2013! He spoke directly about lesbian and gay persons on his return flight from World Youth Day in July. In August, he gave a lengthy three-part interview to Antonio Spadaro, SJ, the Editor-in-Chief of La Civilta Cattolica in Rome at the request of all the editors of Jesuit magazines worldwide. In this interview Pope Francis elaborated on his remarks about lesbian and gay people. In November in Rome, he addressed the Union of Superiors General, an organization of the heads of religious congregations of men and spoke of new kinds of families, some headed by same-gender couples. Children in these situations present new educational challenges for the Church, he said .
In his famous “Who am I to Judge” statement on the plane from Rio, reporters asked about Italian news reports on a “gay lobby” of clerics at the Vatican, blackmailing each other about sexual exploits. Pope Francis joked that he had never seen the word gay on a Vatican identity card, but in seriousness said there is a distinction between the “fact of a person being gay” and “the fact of a lobby.” “Lobbies are not good,” he said, implying that being gay is good. There was public speculation that Francis was affirming only gay celibate priests, not all gay and lesbian people. He contradicted this theory in the coming months.
“During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”
In the quote cited above, Pope Francis spoke about freedom and respect for the spiritual life of each person—all in the context of LGBT people. His words, spoken in this context, affirm the decision that most lesbian and gay Catholics have made to follow their conscience regarding sexuality, knowing in their hearts that they are at peace with God. It is particularly reassuring for them to hear such affirmation from the highest authority of our Church.
A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.
In this quote, Francis reiterated his belief that the heart of the Gospel, and therefore the Church’s primary message, is God’s love for the person, not the repetition or enforcement of sterile doctrines about sexuality. His obvious intent is to by-pass offensive words like “intrinsically disordered” and “objectively immoral.” Francis is telling us to think of lesbian and gay individuals as human beings, as persons, instead of associating them with sexual activity.
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.
Pope Francis’ above quote seems to be directly aimed at members of the hierarchy who are obsessed with cultural wars and the hot-button issues of abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Time magazine pointed out, ”That might not seem like significant progress in the U.S. and other developed nations. But the Pope’s sensitivity to sexual orientation has a different impact in many developing countries, where homophobia is institutionalized, widespread and sanctioned.”
LGBT Catholics and their advocates are looking ahead for Pope Francis’ leadership in at least two specific areas: anti-discrimination laws and pastoral outreach to same-sex couples.
Uganda’s Parliament recently criminalized homosexuality, including life imprisonment for repeat offenders. Similar persecution of LGBT persons is occurring in Nigeria, Zambia, India, Russia, Croatia, and Jamaica, to name but a few nation states. Catholics and people of faith worldwide are calling on Pope Francis to condemn anti-LGBT laws implemented in several nations recently in a campaign called No More Triangle Nations.
The campaign, organized by New Ways Ministry and Fellowship Global, is a coalition of groups, including some COR groups. It encourages people to contact Pope Francis to urge him to speak out against repressive laws. People can tweet at the Pope (@Pontifex), send him an email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or write him a letter (His Holiness Pope Francis, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City State, 00120).
2. Same-Sex Couples
In a speech to the Union of Superiors General in November 2013, Pope Francis described families headed by same-gender couples as one of the new educational challenges facing the Church.
Pope Francis has publicly advocated civil unions, but not gay marriage, for same-sex couples. From this speech, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of his sympathy for gay couples. He cast same-sex couples in a negative light by recalling sadly that a little girl told her teacher, “My mother’s girlfriend doesn’t love me.” However, he showed concern that we not give these children “a vaccine against faith” by showing hostility to their parents.
If the pope is serious about “proclaiming Christ to a generation that is changing,” as he said in this speech, he needs to listen humbly to those in the changing generation. His solicitation of input from the laity for the 2014 Synod on the Family is a good first start, but more needs to be done. For example, he could speak about workers’ rights, particularly the injustice of firing someone in a same-sex relationship, for issues unrelated to job performance.
Pope Francis has provided unexpected exhilaration for LGBT advocates. As Mark Segal, a leading gay activist, observed, “The actual doctrine of the church has not changed, but the message that Pope Francis is sending is more powerful than the doctrines themselves. Francis seems to understand that messages can create instant change, while doctrine can take years. He performs simple gestures as a priest looking after his flock.”
The Advocate succinctly concluded, “Pope Francis is still not pro-gay by today’s standard…But what Francis does say about LGBT people has already caused reflection and consternation within his church.” His example has made a difference. The pope’s influence is not in making policy changes, but in setting the tone that will enable change to bubble up from below.
What can I do to urge the people in my parish, my co-workers, my pastor, my bishop, or other Church leaders to follow Pope Francis’ example of acceptance and love regarding LGBT persons?
What would I wish for Pope Francis to say or do regarding LGBT persons?
How can I help Pope Francis to fully embrace LGBT people?
What about Pope Francis gives me most joy?
1. Tweet at the Pope (@Pontifex).
2. Send him an email (email@example.com)
3. Write him a letter
(His Holiness Pope Francis
Vatican City State, 00120)
Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
DeBernardo, Francis. Marriage Equality: A Positive Catholic Approach. Mount Rainier, MD: New Ways Ministry, 2011
Farley, RSM, Margaret A. Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. New York: Continuum Press, 2006.
Helminiak, Daniel. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality.San Francisco: Alamo Square Press, 1994.
Lopata, Mary Ellen with Casey Lopata. Fortunate Families.Catholic Families with Lesbian Daughters and Gay Sons. Victoria, Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2006.
Note: Some titles above are out of print, but are included because they are classics. They can be obtained from a Catholic university or on the web at www.half.com, www.amazon.com , or other online bookstores that sell used books.
The resource created by
New Ways Ministry
4012 29th Street
Mount Rainier, Maryland 20712