Pope Francis is once again making headlines for a message which may have contained a positive comment on families headed by lesbian and gay couples.
The reason that the above sentence contains may is because, as has happened before, the pope’s comment is somewhat cryptic and open to interpretation, not to mention that the Vatican is downplaying any gay-positive intent.
Through a message by one of his staff members at the Vatican Secretariat of State, Msgr. Peter B. Wells, the pope sent a message of encouragement to an Italian author, Francesca Pardi, who recently penned a children’s book about families which has been controversial in Italy because some of its characters are gay penguins and lesbian rabbits youngsters. Pardi sent the book, along with other books with gay and lesbian themes, to the Pontiff in June.
According to a news report in The Guardian, the significant part of the letter from the Vatican stated:
“His holiness is grateful for the thoughtful gesture and for the feelings which it evoked, hoping for an always more fruitful activity in the service of young generations and the spread of genuine human and Christian values.”
While this may not seem to be a ringing endorsement of the book, entitled Piccolo Uovo (translation: Little Egg), it is certainly a strong affirmation of Pardi and her work, which has been the center of a literary-political storm in Italy. The Guardian story notes:
“The book. . .was met with disapproval by Venice’s new mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, who in June banned Piccolo Uovo and about 50 other titles from schools. The decision led more than 250 Italian authors to demand their own books be removed from the city’s shelves, a move one writer described as a ‘protest against an appalling gesture of censorship and ignorance.’ “
In fact, when Pardi sent the book to the pope, she included a letter describing the negative criticism that she received. Catholics are a large part of the “We Defend the Family Committee,” a nationwide group against lesbian and gay families, which has been one of the leaders of the campaign against Pardi’s book. In part, she told the pope:
“Many parishes across the country are in this period sullying our name and telling falsehoods about our work which deeply offends us.We have respect for Catholics … A lot of Catholics give back the same respect, why can’t we have the whole hierarchy of the church behind us?”
So, while the pope did not make a direct statement about the lesbian and gay content of the book, he did take the position of affirming the book which has been embroiled in a public controversy, and one which involves Catholics.
The Guardian also reported that a Vatican official offered an explanation for the pope’s comment which indicates that it was not meant to be affirming of families headed by lesbian or gay parents:
“The Vatican said the closing blessing of the private letter was addressed to Pardi and not in support of teachings which went against church doctrine on ‘gender theory.’ “
Hmmmmm. Sounds like a bit of hair-splitting to me.
Pardi, herself has interpreted the message very positively, while also very realistically. The Guardian reported:
“Pardi said she had not expected a reply and was surprised to receive the letter at her Milan home. ‘It’s not that I think that he’s for gay families, because there’s the Catholic doctrine, but we mustn’t think that we don’t have rights,’ she said.”
Pardi also told the International Business Times that she saw the blessing as an opening for greater dialogue:
” ‘I was very touched by it,’ Pardi told IBTimes UK. She explained that the letter was not supportive of gay rights but nevertheless marked an important change in the Church attitude towards homosexuals. ‘Obviously he [Francis] doesn’t agree with homosexuality and if he ever was to make such an opening he would never do so in a private letter to me!’ she said. ‘However, only to consider me as an interlocutor worth respect is a tremendous step forward. I read it as an opening towards people and dialogue, a message of tolerance.’ “
Because Italy does not have marriage equality or protections for lesbian parents with children, Pardi married her wife in Spain, and the couple had their four children in the Netherlands, according to Jezebel.com.
So how do we interpret this latest cryptic message from Francis? While I try to be cautious of over-interpreting his statements in a positive light, I can’t help but think that he, and his staff, have to know what they are doing and how the public will react to their comments. He has had too many ambiguously positive LGBT statements over the past few years for this to be merely accidental.
At the same time, let’s not rush to assume that Pope Francis is supporting marriage equality. His clear negative statements about legalizing marriage for lesbian and gay couples are a clear indication that he opposes such initiatives.
I think that Pope Francis is showing Catholics that they can interact politely with people with whom they disagree. He is not presenting content to the debate, but modeling how the debate can take place. As I’ve said before, that, in itself is a step forward. I believe that once the debate about LGBT issues can occur civilly in the Church, then we are on our way to taking steps towards greater justice and equality.
As I’ve also said before, though, we have to recognize this phase as a first step, and not relax into complacency. There is still much work to be done to achieve full equality of LGBT people in the Catholic Church.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Huffington Post: “Pope Francis Gives Blessing To Author Of Gay Children’s Book”
Daily News Analysis India: “Breaking taboos: Pope Francis blesses lesbian children’s author who writes on same-sex families”