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Today marks the second anniversary of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s election to the papacy and becoming Pope Francis. From his first moments of asking the crowd in St. Peter’s Square to bless him before he blessed them, he has shown himself to be a different type of pope. A few months after that, he changed the tone of the church’s conversation on LGBT issues with his famous question: “Who am I to judge?”
The heady days of that first year of his papacy seem to be fading, as Pope Francis has let some of the old harsh rhetoric on LGBT issues creep into his public remarks. We saw this with his remark about “ideological colonization” of marriage, and more recently by comparing gender theory to nuclear arms.
The advance of this kind of rhetoric makes one wonder: Is Pope Francis really as LGBT-positive as people originally thought?
The simple answer to that is “no.” Part of the reason for the negative assessment, though, is not due to Pope Francis, but to the overly positive hopes and expectations people had for him because of his initial statements and gestures.
The real answer, though, is a bit more complicated. I think we need to pull back a little and see Pope Francis’ program through a wider lens. Three commentators have recently offered some helpful perspectives.
Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, a columnist for The National Catholic Reporter, has evaluated this papacy by noting that Francis is trying to change the culture of the church. Reese wrote the following about what he sees as Francis’ important change:
“Leadership in the church is about service, not power and prestige.
“Many observers do not recognize how revolutionary is the change in style and culture that Pope Francis is calling for. It is more important than moving around boxes on the organizational chart. The difficulty is that it requires buy-in by bishops and clergy throughout the world. There will be no ‘Francis effect’ unless hearts and attitudes are changed. Too many seminarians and young priests see themselves as correctors of lay laxity and heterodoxy rather than as companions in a pilgrimage to the Lord. . . .
“The pope has called for a new style of being church, a style that is pastoral and open. He has set out a new set of priorities that are rooted in the Gospel.”
Pat Perriello, another National Catholic Reporter writer, offered the following cautionary categorization of the pope:
“Francis is not a liberal reformer. He is not invested in some of the same issues that many liberals are, such as advocating for a married and female clergy. Instead, Francis is a radical gospel reformer. The reform of Francis goes deeper than a few specifics. He is saying the present structure interferes with the mission of Jesus’ church. Radical change in the way we do things is necessary if we expect to be true, authentic followers of Jesus. Each of us as individuals but especially church leaders must quit being staunch defenders of some restrictive notion of orthodoxy and embrace Jesus’ mission of love and service to all. What this means for the nuts and bolts of church structure and practice may be in question. But before visible, observable change can really occur something else has to happen.”
And John Allen, Jr., who writes for Crux, offered the following observations about the pope to explain Francis’ inconsistencies:
“1. Francis is a Latin American.
He thus is a figure for whom the usual Western dichotomies such as left/right don’t weigh as heavily. Indeed, at times it seems he almost delights in tweaking those categories.
“2. Francis is a pastor.
He’s not an academic, meaning he’s less interested in abstract consistency than in concrete situations, trusting that there’s always a way to smooth out the intellectual rough edges.”
These three analyses show that Pope Francis and his reform program is more complicated than what meets the eye. So where does that leave those of us who have hopes for equality and justice for LGBT people in the Church?
I think that the enthusiasm that many LGBT Catholics have had for Pope Francis is understandable (I have been one of them). But I think that our enthusiasm has to be tempered with reality of what he is actually doing, is able to do, and is not doing.
As I’ve said before, Pope Francis will not be the pope who makes the important changes that LGBT Catholics long for. But that doesn’t mean that he is not doing something to pave the way for the future for which we pray.
I think that change in the church happens in a four-step process:
1) initial discussion of an issue
2) testing out some ideas in pastoral practice
3) theological reflection on the practice
4) change in magisterial teaching.
Part of the problem is that while many in the church have already been heavily involved in the first three steps for a long time now, the hierarchy has not. I think that Pope Francis’ greatest contribution to LGBT issues in the church may be that he initiated the dialogue on these topics among the hierarchy who for too long have either been silent or have repeated ill-informed statements which do not reflect current human reality. It’s sad to say, but a good deal of the hierarchy has a lot of work to do to get themselves out of the homophobic corner into which they’ve painted themselves. That will take time.
Fr. Reese concluded his commentary on Pope Francis’ papacy so far with a thought that I think we should all remember:
But the church is not the pope. Unless bishops, priests and laity follow his example and embrace his priorities, there will not be permanent change in the church. The temptations to clericalism and self-centeredness are too strong. We have to stop admiring the pope and start imitating him.
I’ve often said to Catholic audiences that if we want to see a more democratic church, then we have to rely less on the hierarchy for making changes, and, instead, we need to live those changes and speak out for them. We can’t be a democratic church if we keep expecting only the hierarchy to do the leading.
A pope alone will not change the church. It will take all of us to do that.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry