In the News 2013
Bondings 2.0

Have We Painted Pope Francis’ Gay Comments Too Optimistically?

This week has been a heady one, with hopes and dreams of a more LGBT-inclusive church running high, thanks to Pope Francis’ remarks in his airplane press conference on the way back from Brazil. We’ve tried to give you a variety of points of view on this news story, and you can read our previous samplingshere and here.

Today, we are offering some more challenging perspectives than we have previously. They are perspectives which are critical of Pope Francis’ statements, but what makes them particularly challenging is that they comes from people who are progressive Catholics who work for reform in the church along more liberal lines. Both of these commentators are people who I think of as sharp church observers, so I think it is important to take their opinions into consideration. After summarizing their arguments, I will offer my own opinion, and I hope that you will offer YOUR opinions in the “Comments” section of this post.

Jamie Manson, a columnist for The National Catholic Reporter, sums up her critique of the pope’s statements and people’s responses in the headline question: “When does our hope for Francis become denial?” Manson examines the pope’s LGBT comments in the context of the full press conference where he also denied the possibility of ordaining women, and spoke about pastoral care for divorced and remarried Catholics. The gist of her critique is in the bulleted section of her essay, excerpted here:

  • “In terms of his much-touted use of the word “gay,” I believe he used it not so much as a sign of respect but because the word was being used in the context of the rumored “gay lobby.” Few people still know what this mysterious lobby inside the Curia is or what precisely they are advocating for (clearly it isn’t LGBT rights), but Francis was again clear he was not pleased with this lobby, saying he needed to distinguish whether a person was gay or part of the gay lobby.
  • “After Francis delivered his now-legendary “Who am I to judge?” line, he immediately reaffirmed the teaching of the catechism. He may not have used the “intrinsically disordered” phrase, but he did make it clear that “the tendency isn’t the problem.” Obviously, same-sex acts and same-sex marriage still are the problem. The real question I think he was asking was, “Who am I to judge a celibate gay person who seeks the Lord and is of goodwill?”
  • “While his words about a new approach to divorced and remarried Catholics were encouraging, they were couched in his mentioning that a new “pastoral care of marriage” was being developed. My sense is the main thrust of initiative will be to make the boldest Roman Catholic declaration yet that marriage is between one man and one woman. Remember that just two years ago, as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he called same-sex marriage an “anthropological setback,” and on the plane, he affirmed the church’s opposition to marriage equality.
  • “Pope Francis’ words about women were spirit-breaking. The idea that we need a “deeper theology of women” is remarkable only because, for the past half-century, Catholic women theologians, many of them women religious, have been developing, writing and teaching a profound theology of women. Just because the hierarchy has not cared to read it doesn’t mean it doesn’t already exist. I shudder to think whom Francis would ask to formulate this “deeper theology.”
  • “As a woman who has discerned a calling to the priesthood for more than 20 years, Francis’ hiding behind John Paul II’s theology and claiming that the “door is closed” on the ordination issue was profoundly painful. Hearing these words, I felt the same kind of humiliation I would have experienced if a door had literally been slammed in my face.
  • “Francis got some positive attention for saying women are more important than priests and bishops, even if they have no chance of being ordained. In essence, he said even though women will never have ecclesial decision-making power or the opportunity to exercise sacramental ministry, they are so much more special than the men who get to run and lead the church.

Manson draws from these insights the following ideas:

“Are we truly listening to the full context of what Francis is saying, or are we just hearing what our hearts most deeply want to hear? It is important to be people of hope, but at what point does being hopeful and optimistic slip into avoidance and denial of what this man truly believes? “I realize Catholics are starving for inspiring, authentic pastoral leadership, but honesty and solidarity demand that we speak out against unjust, spiritually harmful words, even if they are coming from a charismatic figure in whom we desperately want to believe and trust. “I want to be hopeful that Francis might have a transformation. Personally, my heart has a deep investment in it: I would love to be able to return to active Catholic ministry again, and I want all of the exceptional women and LGBT Catholics who have the ability to spiritually lead and inspire to be able to answer God’s calling. . . . “But there was nothing Francis said on that plane that leads me to think we are any closer to either of these possibilities. I remain hopeful justice will come someday, but I think it is important to accept the reality that the residual effects of a patriarchal, homophobic, clerical formation can still dwell within a man who is otherwise committed to justice and deeply pastoral.”


And her conclusion:

“If we cannot be honest about what this pope believes, and if we refuse to criticize him when criticism is justified, we could run the risk of giving the Vatican public relations machine exactly what it wants: a return to the days when the pope was an object of affection, adulation and unequivocal goodwill — no questions asked.”


Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, in an essay on The Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, is reluctant to give the mantle of “reformer” to the new pope, wondering if all the good-will exhibited are more publications than substance. O’Brien notes:

“Catholics desperately want change in our church, and Pope Francis is being heralded in Time magazine and on almost every major network and newspaper as the one who will deliver it. But before we pronounce him the patron saint of reform, we should step back and take a critical look at whether his gestures indicate a true metamorphosis or are simply a media-friendly rhetorical shift.”


O’Brien backs up his thesis with several pieces of evidence:

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and recent actions by the new administration have a familiar taste. At two meetings at the U.N. in June, the Vatican’s representative stood up to oppose sexual and reproductive health, just as he and his predecessors have always done. Pope Francis talks of compassion for poor but has done nothing to change the hierarchy’s ban on contraception, something that would help interrupt the cycle of poverty perpetuated in developing nations where lifesaving contraception is unavailable. Time and time again, the Catholic hierarchy and its charities prevent people from accessing the means to control their own fertility. “Pope Francis may have spared us the usual lecture about abortion but we can’t expect much movement on this issue. His predecessors were more insistent in delivering the anti-choice party line, their words falling on ears that are not deaf, but belonging to individuals fully able to interpret their own consciences. Parishioners easily recognize yet another instance of celibate men who, unable to understand the reality and complexity of family life, choose to condemn so many in our church. “Pope Francis did state that he won’t judge gay people, but continues to deny them the right to express their love in the same way as do heterosexuals, with perpetual chastity seemingly the only sanctioned option for LGBT faithful. He also forgave the sins of gay clergy, knowing that the church would grind to a halt were he to make sexual orientation a litmus test for prospective priests and nuns. “But when Francis was asked about the role of women in church, and the possibility that one day the church could enjoy the gifts of ordained women, he insisted that door was closed.”


O’Brien’s conclusion:

“The doors and windows in the Vatican have been closed for a very long time. The air is stale. Faithful Catholics pray for real transformation—perhaps through Pope Francis. Wherever change comes from, one thing is clear: the winds of change need to blow through the whole church, especially the Vatican. Those few acres in Rome are the epicenter of a conservative brand of Catholicism promoted by the hierarchy that has little to do with the way everyday Catholics live and believe. The Francis-dictated fashion for plain cassocks over splendid robes notwithstanding, Catholics want a change of heart from the entrenched leadership, a revolution that would earn rank-and-file Catholics’ vote for sainthood.”


You can also view a BBC-TV video of an interview with O’Brien in which he makes some of these points, as well as some different ones, here:


So what to make of these critiques? In one sense, they both make an important point with which I agree: we need to evaluate Pope Francis on his actions. I agree that the pope’s words will be empty if he doesn’t follow up on them, and we have seen this happen recently by a church leader. In the spring, Cardinal Timothy Dolan made headlines with a gay-positive message, but then followed it up with a tragically hurtful blog post, backing off from the statement.

But, in another sense, aren’t words also actions? Words do have significance, and, as many have pointed out, the shift in tone from Benedict to Francis on has been significant. Patrick Hornbeck, a theology professor at Fordham University, noted the word change significance in a Washington Post “On Faith” blog post titled “Pope Francis shows it’s okay to say ‘gay’.” Hornbeck notes the significance of Pope Francis’ use of the word “gay,” while at the same time cautioning against hopes running too high:

“It is indeed cause for celebration that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church has named a contingent of fellow human beings with the words that they have chosen to name themselves and that his predecessors often denied to them. Even though they did not occur in the context of an official Vatican statement, Pope Francis’ remarks will be warmly welcomed by the majorities of U.S. Catholics who support nondiscrimination laws, adoption by same-sex couples, and equal legal recognition for committed same-sex relationships. Let this optimism be cautious, however: the pope did not endorse any specific changes in Catholic teaching, and there is nothing in his statement that commits him to doing so in the future.“While much work remains to be done to bring about the full equality of all citizens and believers, Monday Pope Francis simply and empathetically named what was once considered unnameable. He thus follows in the footsteps of his most significant predecessor, who lived two millennia ago and was also known to dine with outcasts and call them by name.”


Hornbeck is right in pointing out that the pope’s comment have not changed church teaching, but what I think is important is that Francis put emphasis on the teaching that has been too infrequently taught: the human dignity of ALL people.

Manson and O’Brien both have an important point about Pope Francis’ rejection of women’s ordination. On Monday, when I was reading the news of the press conference, my initial elation at the gay comment almost disappeared when I read about the pope’s ban on women’s ordination. I felt the same way that I felt back in June when the U.S. Supreme Court’s supportive marriage equality decision came right after their repeal of the Voting Rights Act. In both cases, steps toward equality and justice were connected to steps backward, too. Celebrations were certainly muted by these retrograde moves.

I appreciate the thought-provoking positions of all three of these writers. They help me think more critically about these issues. I still believe there is much to celebrate in the pope’s statement. (For New Ways Ministry’s position, click here.) But what matters most is not what has been said, but what will be done–for LGBT people and women in the Catholic Church.

This piece was originally published by Bondings 2.0.

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