Examining the Two Faces of Pope Francis on LGBT Issues

Today’s blog post is by guest blogger Vernon Smith (see bio below).

Francis-scowling 3pope-laugh 2There he goes again! Pope Francis’ recent statements about marriage equality are unclear and disappointing. The man who at times provides glimpses of hope and a breath of fresh air can also be the man who confounds and lets people down.  Sometimes, I just throw up my hands and walk way.  But after the tantrum has subsided, I still cannot just write off the guy completely.  One word captures my attitude towards Pope Francis: ambivalence.

In reflecting upon this ambivalence Francis can inspire, I see the currents of polarization that are so prevalent these days in the media and in society. The need to view and cast things in black and white, as incontrovertible and opposing, is stronger than ever. This polarized world view provides clarity and a certainty:  good versus evil, saint and sinner, human against beast, hero versus villain, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Yet this polarization also points to a world filled with fear.

The need to find certainty amidst confusion is both a personal and social means of coping with new and potentially threatening ideas. The global rise of religious fundamentalism among all major faiths is an example of this need for certainty. Like all coping mechanisms, black-and-white thinking might be helpful in moderation, especially during times of stress.  But as coping moves toward obsession without addressing complex root causes that defy black-and-white portrayals, it becomes dangerous. The classic example is the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe, when Jews, gays, and other “undesirables” were viewed as fundamental causes of the social and economic problems of the times and in need of eradication.

As far as evaluating Pope Francis, I see someone who, for all his faults, bucks this disturbing trend to polarize and marginalize one another. He is certainly not perfect, especially on LGBT issues. But maybe my need to see him as “perfect” is part of the problem. After all, perfection is also a polar concept. But really . . . do you know any perfect people?

Like many, I wish our church would move us a little towards the “positive” end of the spectrum on LGBT issues in the Church–never mind “perfection.”  The snail’s pace at which we move is frustrating and tries the patience.  I certainly understand, and do not challenge, my fellow progressives who may have given up on this Pope, or the Church, or other aspects of religion and spirituality.  Matters of injustice and prejudice necessitate impatience.  Each person is called to respond to these challenges in a manner that is true to oneself and promotes his or her own spiritual health.

When I assess Pope Francis, I do so in the context of my most basic life experiences and how those close to me are impacted. I think of my mother who recently passed away.  She was raised in the pre-Vatican II era in which salvation rested in doing what the Church said you should do.  This mindset was her experience and foundation in life, and as much as my generation moved away from that approach, I learned to respect the fact that – bottom line – she only genuinely wanted to be one with God.

Mom had two gay sons.  As she was not a progressive Catholic in the slightest, homosexuality went against everything she was ever taught and understood, and there was no changing her mind.  However, she never disowned my brother and me, or denied us her love. That was a great gift. However, I knew that for years she quietly struggled over the dissonance between her rigid Catholic background and her love for her children. What can be more terrifying to a parent than the thought – as ingrained by your Church – that any of your children may not enter Heaven?

In her final years, when faced with another potentially distressing family issue that did not square with Church teachings, she surprised us.  She quickly responded by referencing Pope Francis’ famous line about gay people. She said, “Who is he to judge? Well, that is how I look at these things these days.” We were moved by her peace-filled response, which is not how she would have responded earlier.

A simple, pastoral statement by Francis allowed Mom to sleep a little better, and approach the latter part of her life with more peace, after a long and faithful journey.  For all of my frustration with Francis, that personal impact is important to me. It was painful to see my mother troubled for so long.  For Mom to realize that she could be released from those worries seemed to have a calming effect on her during the last few years of her life.

And so, I remain grateful to Pope Francis, and I have not quite been able to give up on the hope that he represents.  I sometimes challenge myself about “settling” for really low expectations of him.  He is no liberal stalwart that will revolutionize Church teachings the way I would like. He will continue to say things about “mercy” in relation to LGBT folks that can seem demeaning.  But he does something that is probably more important these days.  He emphasizes love and respect for the person, the whole person, above and beyond mere teachings.  The way he embodies that message transcends everything else he does. And the occasionally bumbling manner in which he does so only underscores the humanity with which he carries himself while approaching and respecting others. I find that amazingly refreshing.

We really need this kind of high profile, vulnerable voice in an increasingly certain, polarized world.  We need a fallible leader to cut through the fear that drives so many into opposing camps. His simple, pastoral emphasis upon love and respect for every person – and his imperfect means of engaging folks – allows for the discussion of genuine differences.  In the polarized environment that existed under his predecessors, no discussion of perspectives was even possible. Francis seems to have put aside the fearful tough talk and harsh rhetoric that prevents the exploration of genuine, complex differences among people.  It seems to be the first time in a long, long time that there is room for discussion. It is not exactly what I want, the way I want it, but at least it is moving in a positive direction.

Without discussion, there is not much hope for change in a polarized world. To me, Pope Francis defies polar opposites. He is difficult to cast as an outright hero or villain. I hope that is a good thing for the Church in moving forward, especially on LGBT issues. . Keep your emphasis upon the people, Pope Francis . . . keep it on the people!

–Vernon R. Smith

vernVernon Smith is a professional archivist and a longtime volunteer for New Ways Ministry. He lives with Thom, his partner of 21 years, in suburban Maryland.

14 Responses to Examining the Two Faces of Pope Francis on LGBT Issues

  1. lynne miller says:

    I certainly agree with you! One of the best things about Pope Francis is that he’s not perfect, and he’s not claiming to be. He’s a good man, a smart man, a wise man, who is doing the best he can in an extremely difficult position. Many Popes have tried to appear as the perfect, saintly Pope, and some have been canonized for it, but it’s harder to admit you’re not perfect, and keep on doing your best.

  2. amagjuka says:

    As MLK said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Pope Francis has reminded Catholics that the official rule is that LGBT sex is intrinsically disordered, and same sex marriage is to be denied. Once he does this, calling for mercy does not stop dogmatic and rules-oriented bishops from excluding, marginalizing, and discriminating against LGBT people. It does not stop governments from declaring that being LGBT is a crime. This is not OK with most Catholics. Most of the faithful want the church to stop discriminating in our name. LGBT people are human beings with dignity. Dignity is not firing people. It is not marginalizing people. It is not name-calling or isolating people. Dignity is affording every human being what we would have for ourselves. Bottom line: the church cannot have it both ways. No matter how wonderful this pope is, he has doubled down on the discrimination embedded in the church. This is not OK.

  3. Lorna Horishny says:

    Having entered the church as an adult in 1962 (note the date) I sometimes feel I’ve spent all my “Catholic career” running to catch up. It can be exhilarating and it can be exhausting. With Pope Francis, I sense a return to the blessed humanity I’ve sought from the church from the beginning. Your piece on Francis reassures me and gives me hope that my “gut feeling” for our present pontiff is right. He’s leading us in the right direction, he is a living, breathing example of God’s love on earth, and we are truly blessed to have him.

  4. clopata says:

    Beautifully done! Thank you Vernon Smith. For parents of LGBTQ kids, Francis has been especially helpful to those with pre-Vatican II beliefs that anything the Pope says must be accepted, Your story illustrates the harm caused them by the negative statements of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Thankfully, Francis has been much more supportive in his statements and, in so doing, has also shown that the judgments of a pope (other than the rare infallible statement confirming what the Church as a whole believes) — including him — are not definitive. Casey Lopata

  5. Steve says:

    Thanks Vernon for this great reminder to avoid polar opposites and rest in joy amid life’s inconsistencies. It reminds me of a place in one of the psalms where God has placed us in a very spacious place. Blessings.

  6. Larry says:

    Yes the Pope is wonderful with his emphasis on mercy and love for the whole person but when he wont reverse the Church’s “intrinsically disordered” dogma nor clearly support marriage rights in a civil context nor call out his own bishops and cardinals when they support jailing and killing gay people, his words are beginning to sound hollow and just a new spin on “love the sinner hate the sin”.

  7. Friends says:

    These responses remind me of the fact that, a few months ago, I observed that Francis is a Jesuit — and the Jesuits historically have specialized in doing the “Rhetorical Fandango”! In other words, they’re masters at creating a cloud of rhetorical ambiguity — in which various factions will see whatever they wish to see. On the one hand, this maneuver keeps the global Church sufficiently “together” so that the chance of schism is minimized. But on the other hand, it also leaves both factions uneasy and fundamentally unsatisfied about the status quo. Today’s posted article highlights a textbook example of this maneuver. As long as the Catholic laity themselves remain bitterly divided about the moral legitimacy and integrity of faithfully-bonded same-sex civil unions or civil marriages — since virtually nobody at this point is expecting for the RCC to “sacramentalize” same-sex marriage rites — I can’t see any way around the ideological impasse. If one remains a practicing Catholic — as I do — it sadly needs to be in spite of such exasperating social contradictions.

  8. Richard McIvor says:

    Pope Francis suggests an “inner path” to get blessing/approval on questions of conscience generally disapproved of by public “outer path” church positions.
    Pope Francis was severely rebuffed in the 2015 Synod of Bishops on many of his issues that were seen as liberalizing rigid church positions. Personally and fundamentally, Pope Francis has always called for acceptance of and encounter with the individual. He almost always opposes rigidity in teaching or people setting higher standards for other people than they allow for themselves. He did get Cardinal Muller’s key agreement in the Synod on the “inner path” over Communion for divorcees where Catholics approach a priest in confession, review their situations and understandings in good conscience and get a get a blessing/approval. One of my parish priests has said that people have used confession like this (and pastoral discretion) to get approval for use of artificial birth control to plan their families.
    Franics DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, wrote that Pope Francis ‘sees a welcoming approach as consistent with Catholic doctrine, “not a departure from it”; he emphasizes God’s love rather than judgment; and he sees LGBT people as individuals and doesn’t focus on their sex lives.’
    In time, we expect full transparent justice for all LGBTIQ. Middle America was intolerant of gay people until recently when many people came to accept some one in their family who is gay. Knowing and accepting the full range of LGBTIQ experiences will take longer.
    Right now, Pope Francis emphasizes God’s Mercy over Justice.

    • Larry says:

      So again for LGBT folks it is ………wait…….wait……….wait until the next Pontiff elected is Benedict 17 and the genie gets put back in the bottle.

      • lynne miller says:

        I think people expect from the Pope what they expect from the President. He’s the boss, why can’t he just say it’s changed and so be it. It’s never that simple. They have to fight the establishment around them, and that takes time. I agree it’s always wait wait wait for us, and we can pray for a long life for Francis and another wonderful election next time, but it’s going to be slow.

  9. Well. this will perhaps shock you, but the One Perfect Person was loved by a gay man and Jesus loved (John, the Beloved)him back. THERE is our model, and someday, that is the one that Francis will see.I hate when they caonize “pious, holy” popes who have so often been wrong about vital issues. Let’s not do that to Francis. Just pray for him(he has asked for one “Hail Mary” a day from each of us), encourage him and — where he IS close to perfect, imitate him. He walks in the footsteps of St. Francis, who followed Jesus better than anyone else ever had. Donna A, SFO

  10. […] it comes to LGBT concerns, Pope Francis’ own involvement in the Year of Mercy is ambiguous. The million-dollar question right now is what impact his upcoming apostolic exhortation on the […]

  11. […] it comes to LGBT concerns, Pope Francis’ own involvement in the Year of Mercy is ambiguous. The million-dollar question right now is what impact his upcoming apostolic exhortation on the […]

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