While LGBT issues have not been a major focus of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) meeting in Baltimore this week, one small introduction to these topics may be an indicator that the “Francis effect”–the idea that Pope Francis is influencing Catholic leaders–is having an impact on the American hierarchy.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, Florida, and a member of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration, compared the situation of LGBT people in nations with repressive laws to the plight of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
“ ‘We have to help people to realize that they should not demonize the undocumented; Nobody should be demonized because of their sexual orientation, etc,’ said Wenski, who is part of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration. Immigration reform is one of the American church’s top policy priorities.
“Wenski was responding to a question from BuzzFeed News about whether the global church had been clear in transmitting the message of ‘love the sinner/hate the sin’ in its teachings on homosexuality. Wenski, a member of the Bishops’ Working Group on the Life and Dignity of the Human Persons, said that a public opinion study commissioned by the church found many American church members simply interpreted ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’ as ‘hate the sinner.’”
Wenski’s comments are certainly a step in the right direction. It seems very likely, too, that his remarks have been very influenced by Pope Francis’ new approach to issues like homosexuality, which emphasizes that the Church needs to view such issues through the lens of its social justice tradition, rather than its sexual ethics tradtion.
Why does it seem that Wenski’s attitude is a result of the “Francis effect”? Because until recently, he has not made supportive of comments for LGBT people, and in fact, some of his comments and actions have been quite negative. In August of this year, he spoke out against a Florida court’s ruling that same-gender marriage could be approved in that state. Wenski called the ruling “another salvo in the ‘culture wars’ that ultimately seek to redefine the institution of marriage as solely for adult gratification.”
As chair of the USCCB’s domestic policy committee, Wenski joined with other bishops to state great reluctance to accept President Obama’s executive order on non-discrimination, which when it was passed, the USCCB ultimately criticized.
In 2013, he authored a letter to Florida Catholics, instructing them to oppose marriage equality, and he suggested that adoption of same-gender marriage could lead to legalized polygamy.
Before becoming archbishop of Miami, Wenski was the bishop of Orlando, Florida, where he shut down a very successful diocesan outreach to LGBT people.
So, to see him now speak in such compassionate tones forces one to ask, “Why did he change?” Since the change is very much in line with the pope’s approach, it seems reasonable to infer that Wenski has been influenced by the pontiff.
Rather than condemning him for his earlier comments, I think we should rejoice that his rhetoric is changing. Regardless of what motivated him to change, it is very beneficial to not only LGBT people, but to the entire Catholic Church that he did. Though he probably still opposes marriage equality, he is still taking a step in the right direction, and that step will help to influence many other Catholics to at least begin to think more positively about LGBT people.
Solid change always happens by little and by little.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry