As I have noted many times in previous commentaries, change comes at a lethargic pace for the Roman Catholic Church. One of the main reasons for this is the patriarchal structure of the leadership, with power concentrated at the very top.
This means essentially that the direction that the church goes depends upon the man who is elected as pope, who wields almost total power. For the past few decades — and especially under Pope Benedict XVI — the direction of the church towards gay and lesbian people has been mostly of a condemnatory nature, with an acute emphasis on the “sinfulness” of gay people and their “disordered nature.”
With the election of Pope Francis this past May, it was hoped that there would be a softening of this stance and that a more realistic and healthy dialogue about the place and role of gay people within the church could be established. Recent comments by Pope Francis would seem to indicate that this hope has been realized.
Pope Francis made headlines around the world in late July while on a plane ride home from a visit to Brazil; he spoke candidly with reporters about the topic of homosexuality. Unlike his predecessor — who had signed a document in 2005 which stated men who had deep-seated homosexual tendencies should not be allowed to be priests — Francis set a more conciliatory and compassionate.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” he said.
He also said gay people should not be marginalized, but must be integrated into society.
This marks a major change in the tone of the conversation around how the church views homosexuality. It is important to note that Pope Francis did not indicate that official church policy has changed — it still does not approve of homosexuality and considers it a sin. But the condemnation and judgmental approach the church had taken in the past was not consistent with his approach to the papacy.
During the same conversation, he also responded to questions about one of his trusted monsignors who had been accused of being involved in a gay tryst by an Italian magazine. He indicated that he had investigated the matter and had found no evidence to support the claim.
He then took the reporters to task for reporting on this alleged incident because the allegations concerned matters of sin — which is essentially between the individual and God — not crimes like sexually abusing children. In making this statement, he drew a very clear line between homosexuality and pedophilia. This is critical, as there had been some tendency within the church to equate the two, which contributed greatly to the overall condemnation of homosexuality within the church.
This statement alone should go a long way towards reducing the stigmatization of homosexuality and represents a more modern and educated viewpoint on the subject.
Pope Francis repeated this message last month in an interview with Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal which indicates that he is serious about changing the tone of the conversation. It is part of his overall strategy to shake off the church’s obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality and to focus more on being more compassionate and merciful in its approach to all people.
He also spoke about having a conversation about the role of women in the church and working harder to develop “a profound theology of the woman.” He is not proposing to change official church teaching on the issues mentioned above, but seems to want to change the focus of the church away from enforcing strict doctrine to focusing on reaching out to all people and working to include everyone within the family of the church.
As noted above, change is slow coming in the church, and I do not expect there will be any major changes in doctrine around homosexuality any time soon. What has changed is the tone of the conversation, and the approach from the top is likely to ensure that gays and lesbians within the Catholic Church will feel less excluded.
For gays and lesbians, this pope represents the best hope that change will eventually come.
Brian Hodder is a past-chairman of Newfoundland Gays and Lesbians for Equality.