Where are we at now with the cause of LGBT+ equality in the Church and beyond after hearing Pope Francis express his support for same-gender civil unions?
“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it. What we have to have is a civil union law – that way they are legally covered”, the pontiff says in a new documentary.
While those words are undoubtedly a positive step towards full LGBT+ equality, here are four more things the Pope can do now to bring about a real revolution in this regard… plus one that we can do ourselves.
1. Speak in an official document
The Pope’s remarks in the new documentary, Francesco, have sparked off a fierce debate over the what, when, why and how of his message. Was he the victim of selective editing? Bad translation? Censorship by Vatican authorities?
Were the Pope to put his same-gender civil unions support in an official document, he could remove all doubt as to where he, and the Church, stand on the issue of LGBT+ equality – and go a long way towards pulling the rug out from under those who continue to cling to Church technicalities as an excuse not to put into practice the pastoral “revolution of tenderness” and gospel full inclusion that the pontiff has long pushed for.
Theologian Lisa Fullam explained the problem like this:
“… papal commentary, however welcome, is not the same thing as papal teaching in a higher-authority official document. It is not enough for Francis to remark in a way that is inconsistent with previous official teaching; in order for official teaching to change, it must be made in an official teaching document. A papal interview carries very little doctrinal heft”.
2. Remove suspicion of Catholic LGBT+ “separate but equal” policy
In her helpful article on “The good and the bad of Pope Francis’ support for civil unions”, Fullam also pointed to another potential problem with the latest papal pronouncements – that they “might be a way for the magisterium to duck the actual question of support for same-sex relationships by relegating it to the civil sphere”.
The theologian further explained, warning against what has been called the “failed and pernicious” policy of ‘separate but equal’ with regard to race and marriage equality:
“By relegating same-sex Catholic marriages to the civil sphere, Church leadership is offering them only a place outside the sacramental life of the Church…
“What is at stake in marriage equality is not merely a question of whether a marriage happens in church or at city hall. It is a question of the fundamental equal dignity of gay and lesbian Catholics in the Church. Here’s hoping Francis can come to understand that, especially in light of this promising first step”.
3. Change the Catechism
As no shortage of LGBT+ Catholics have pointed out, the Pope’s support for civil unions rings rather hollow while the Catechism – although calling for “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” for LGBT+ people – continues to describe homosexual acts as “acts of grave depravity” that “under no circumstances” can be approved and insists that LGBT+ people are called to “chastity” and “self-mastery”.
With regard to changing that language, The Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research – while it hailed the Pope’s “informal” remarks “as a timely shift in-line with overwhelming theological evidence and a growing acceptance of the lived reality of same sex love and partnership by a majority of Catholics worldwide” – also called on Francis to go further:
“… these personal comments are in direct contradiction with current Catholic teaching, according to which same-sex sexual orientation is ‘intrinsically disordered’, and same-sex relationships are always ‘intrinsically evil’.
“It is this official stance that is still being preached and taught in hundreds of thousands of Catholic churches and schools worldwide with harmful consequences to non-heterosexual children and adults everywhere. Employees of Catholic institutions are still being fired simply for having entered into same-sex civil unions.
“We urge Pope Francis to kick-start a process to revise current official Catholic teaching and practice so that his latest overtures towards acceptance are transformed into concrete change”.
4. Coordinate the Church’s message
While the Pope’s comments on civil unions have been presented as new – including by the Francesco documentary director, Evgeny Afineevsky, himself – journalistic sleuthing has uncovered the fact that they date from a 2019 papal interview with Mexican TV channel Televisa.
Sections of that interview were never broadcast, leading to allegations that the Vatican censored the Pope.
If the Pope were serious about the cause of LGBT+ equality, he could ensure that his communications team always gets his message out in its entirety. The same goes for officials in other Vatican departments.
Even if dictating what all the bishops of the world should say wouldn’t be in line with Francis’ style – given his concern to decentralise and ‘synodalise’ the Church – ‘talking points’ for Vatican office-holders could still be a positive step.
Just this Thursday – the day after Francesco had its premiere in Rome – the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, spoke in a webinar on “The family in pandemic and post-pandemic times”.
Though Paglia didn’t speak on the reality of LGBT+ families, what better occasion could there have been than that webinar, and other events like it, to shore up the Pope’s comments on gays having “the right to be in a family” and being “children of God”?
Were Vatican officials to send a powerful message of praise of LGBT+ families, that would also remove suspicions that the Pope, in his own comments on the subject, was referring only to gay people’s families of origin and not the new families that they form themselves in their unions.
Bonus: here’s what we can do
Though these four points above may depend on the Pope, there’s still something we grassroots Catholics can do to further the cause of LGBT+ equality, and on which we can start today: working ourselves for their full inclusion in our communities.
Spanish Jesuit José María Olaizola explained our task now like this:
“For many [Catholics] it will be scandalous what the Pope has said about civil unions of LGBT people, when in society they are already more than taken for granted.
“Our task is not to tell homosexual people what to do in their civil life, but to facilitate their belonging in the Church.
“For the record, I do not minimise the worth of what the Pope has said.
“What I believe is that more Church people need to speak out even more so that the Pope can come to say more.
“When people say that LGBT people are already perfectly welcome in the Church, I think of the hundreds of conversations I have had with LGBT Catholics wounded by the lack of welcome they have found and are finding. Every day”.
Many of us would like the Pope to go even further in his support for LGBT+ people. But whether or not that further support comes, there is plenty we can already do ourselves. What are we waiting for?