Whether a ‘Francis effect’ exists and just what it might be are questions which have dominated media coverage of Pope Francis’ first year. Now, the Washington Post profiles gay Italian Catholics who very much believe ‘l’effetto Francesco’ or ‘Francis effect’ is positively influencing not just the Church, but their nation as well. The article begins by setting the Italian context:
“But for the pope, perhaps no one issue illustrates his divergence from tradition more than early signs of rapprochement between the church and gay Catholics.
“Francis’s shift so far has been one of style over substance; nothing in the church’s teachings on homosexuality has changed, and conservative clerics remain deeply skeptical of any radical move toward broad acceptance. But few places offer a better snapshot of the church’s evolving relationship with its gay flock than here in Italy, the host of Vatican City and where Roman Catholicism wields outsize influence.”
Italy, long influenced by the Catholic Church, is a holdout among European nations on LGBT rights. The nation’s bishops have helped stop even civil union-type legislation and, of the so-called ‘social issues,’ the Post writes that “homosexuality remains the last taboo.” LGBT advocates do not expect legal recognition of same-gender partners any time soon, even as Italian politicians begin to more publicly endorse gay equality. And yet, the Post notes:
“…the influence on the ground of Francis’s words and deeds — including a recent suggestion that the church may look more closely at the issue of civil unions — has begun to create what gay Catholics here describe as a burgeoning spirit of acceptance in pockets of the church’s grass roots.
“In Florence, a local parish council this month permitted a group of gay Catholics to hold their first public prayer session inside a Roman Catholic church. In Rome, a parish run by Jesuit priests announced a special service scheduled for April that, also for the first time in recent memory, is openly reaching out to gay as well as divorced Catholics. A leaflet for the service depicts Francis on the cover and reads: ‘The Church wants to be home. For everybody.’
“Prompted by a new Vatican questionnaire seeking views on family issues including same-sex couples, a representative of the Diocese of Padua held a landmark meeting in December with a gay Catholic group. Luigi Pescina, a spokesman for the group, said members were told that local church officials would now aim to ‘strip ourselves of prejudice and fear’ and ‘open up a relationship of exchange and enrichment’ with local gay Catholics.”
Elsewhere, Catholic priests and politicians who are already LGBT-affirming are pushing the boundaries and citing Pope Francis when doing so. Kairos, an existing gay Catholic group who received a personal response from Pope Francis last fall, may now hold public liturgies and be affiliated with the parish which had been hosting it. The group’s coordinator Innocenzo Pontillo and others said of these steps:
” ‘It may seem small, but for us, this is important…It is like feeling the light on your face. These are things which I feel would have been impossible before Pope Francis.’
“New members of the group, like Anna Maria — a 35-year-old lesbian who was too afraid of being ‘outed’ to give her last name — have come to consider the pope’s comments on homosexuality last July as a personal turning point.
“She said her devoutly Catholic mother called her after hearing the pope’s declaration. The two of them had grown distant since Anna Maria had told her mother years earlier that she was a lesbian. ‘But when she called me, she said, “If the pope is not judging you, then who am I to judge you either?” ‘ “
Yet, LGBT advocates are warning of claiming too much, too soon, as positive as Pope Francis’ first year has been. They point to continued examples of priests condemning gay and lesbian people. And sustained cultural change will be needed if Pope Francis’ welcoming tone is to have a lasting impact.
There are also those in the Catholic hierarchy working against LGBT inclusion, including Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the head of Italy’s conference of bishops. In a speech, Bagnasco urged parents to oppose an anti-bullying campaign launched by the Italian government to stop violence against and suicides by gay people.
The cardinal used harsh language, saying schools were becoming “indoctrination and re-education camps” in a “totalitarian dictatorship” and attacked what he termed “gender ideology.” According to The New Civil Rights Movement, outcry from Catholic bishops has now caused the government to postpone rolling out the anti-bullying program.
Italy’s situation is a reminder for the universal Church that while Pope Francis is opening doors to LGBT people, lasting change will only come as a result of cultural transformation and we have much to do. Still, the ‘Francis effect’ seems helpful along this path to a more just Church.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry