For LGBT Rights, Is Pope Francis a Partisan or Not?

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Pope Francis

Should the pope be political and/or partisan or not? Pope Francis’ trip to Mexico raised these questions after he challenged whether Donald Trump could be considered Christian. The question also bears on LGBT issues, particularly in Italy where legislators are debating the legalization of civil unions.

Pope Francis gave an in-flight interview returning from Mexico, as he regularly does when apostolic journeys conclude. When asked about the civil unions issue in Italy by Il Sole 24’s Carlo Marroni, the pope responded:

“First of all, I don’t know how things stand in the thinking of the Italian parliament. The Pope doesn’t get mixed up in Italian politics. At the first meeting I had with the (Italian) bishops in May 2013, one of the three things I said was: with the Italian government you’re on your own. Because the pope is for everybody and he can’t insert himself in the specific internal politics of a country. This is not the role of the pope, right? And what I think is what the Church thinks and has said so often – because this is not the first country to have this experience, there are so many – I think what the Church has always said about this.”

From this answer, one would believe the pope refrains from partisan engagement over specific policy questions, and this would include legal recognition of same-gender couples in Italy. But Francis’ record is not so clear. Here are a few relevant facts to consider.

First, in Italy, he has refrained from explicitly condemning civil unions or using the church’s influence to lean on Catholic politicians. This approach directly refutes some Italian bishops’ highly partisan campaigning and is notably different from his predecessors, said theologian Massimo Faggioli. But speaking to the Roman Rota in January, Pope Francis offered his strongest criticism yet of marriage equality saying “there can be no confusion between the family as willed by God, and every other type of union.” This was seen by some observers as a comment on Italy’s civil union debate.

Second, Pope Francis has commented on the “specific internal politics of a country” at least twice before when it comes to LGBT rights. In Slovenia in December 2015, during the week of a national referendum which eventually banned marriage equality and adoption rights by same-gender couples, Pope Francis encouraged all Slovenians, especially those in public life, “to preserve the family” .  A similar moment happened in February 2015 when the pontiff exhorted pilgrims from Slovakia to “continue their efforts in defense of the family,”  just days before an unsuccessful referendum in that nation against equal marriage and adoption rights.

Third, Pope Francis often speaks through gestures, actions, or the statements of his surrogates. For instance, this week, in the midst of the Italian civil unions debate, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said it was “essential” that Italian law differentiate between civil unions for same-gender couples and marriage for heterosexual couples.

It helps to remember, too, that Pope Francis is a solitary person shepherding 1.3 billion people, and that his voice can be used and misused, making it hard to know at times what comes from Francis and what comes from contrary parties.

Fourth, and finally, when called upon to be a voice for marginalized LGBT people, Pope Francis has remained silent. Advocates pleaded with him to speak against laws criminalizing homosexuality during his apostolic voyage to Kenya, Nigeria, and the Central African Republic last fall. Advocates have asked him to intervene in the Dominican Republic, where a cardinal has repeatedly used anti-gay slurs against U.S. Ambassador James Brewster. Last week, this blog commented that the case of Cameroon bishops calling for “zero tolerance” of homosexuality was a perfect case for papal intervention.

From my perspective, these facts suggest, despite the pope’s latest claim, the lack of a consistent position for Pope Francis when it comes to partisan involvement in a given nation’s politics. Pope Francis is, rightly I believe, a politically engaged pontiff and affirmed that to be human is to be political. But he has been partisan where it may be imprudent and even inappropriate for him to be so engaged. The damage U.S. bishops have done to the church in their country. because of their hyper-partisan agenda in recent years, is a cautionary tale. I speculate on two possibilities for why Pope Francis lacks a consistent position.

More negatively, it could be that he claims distance when convenient, and becoming more involved when similarly convenient. He chooses whether to speak about LGBT issues depending on whether he will obtain a positive reception from the audience. Could it be that Pope Francis changes not just the style, but the substance of his messaging depending on who is listening? That would be troubling.

More positively, maybe the humble Pope Francis is learning “on the job” as he navigates unprecedented reforms in a church that is now truly global and truly hurting. His inconsistencies arise because he admits to not having the answers and to shifting course when a better way forward appears apparent. Francis’ actions could reveal a leader who is willing to listen to others’ voices and to encounter those from different perspectives. That would be refreshing.

What do you think? Should the pope be involved in partisan national politics? If so, when? Should the pope be political, raising up issues without endorsing specific policy positions? Should the pope be neither? Leave your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

14 thoughts on “For LGBT Rights, Is Pope Francis a Partisan or Not?

  1. Paula Mattras February 25, 2016 / 3:47 am

    As the leader of the Catholic church, I believe it is good for the Pope to speak to the issues facing the church. We are living in a time when issues which were “buried” and not discussed by those truly educated in the subject with the advance of research, are now coming to the surface. I do not know what is being taught and discussed in seminaries from a scholarly source. Those who hid their orientations are no longer willing to live in silence but rather are gathering the courage to speak to the veracity of their being…not in a confrontational manner but with the truth of their own existence. These sisters and brothers are from every country in the world and their life stories are the same? They are in our families and we love them. How can they love their neighbor as they love themselves if they are consistently being told their love and their lives are misdirected? Everyone should get to know some of these brothers and sisters. They would be surprised at how alike their hopes, devotions and dreams are to those of everyone else. Evidently, the Pope has gay friends, a rich source of knowledge, and he most likely is expanding his understanding.

    Relating to the Pope’s comments on Christianity in the political field, while not naming any particular candidate, he did point out that sole consideration of slamming doors rather than seeking other workable solutions did not fit the definition. Isn’t it interesting that so many seemed to identify one candidate to fit that description?

  2. amagjuka February 25, 2016 / 5:26 am

    To some extent, I think Pope Francis is asking the laity to become way more involved in all aspects of the church. He has called for the “messy church,” where young people and others make noise about issues that concern them. In America, this could mean calling for LGBT rights, and insisting on this, even while some dogmatic bishops take a conservative, anti-gay stance. In other countries, where it is the custom to be violently anti-LGBT, he may perceive that those “making noise” would put themselves in danger. In America, we can speak out. We have an obligation to speak our consciences. It is disappointing to me that the Pope will not just speak out for all LGBT people, especially where the ‘death to gays’ laws are concerned. He should say that imprisoning LGBT people is wrong, period. He spoke out against all death penalty laws in the Year of Mercy–he seems to keep it general, not specific. I am willing to do my part in speaking out. But at the same time, the hierarchy NOT speaking up for LGBT rights, and taking the passive approach in repressive countries reminds me of the silence regarding Hitler and the Nazis. It is the wrong side of history. It is difficult to be part of a church that has as its official stance that LGBT sex is always “disordered.” The implications are dangerous to actual people, actual human beings. We have an obligation as Catholics to address the injustices that are happening in the church. Until this happens, young people will reject the church, since they are not as bigoted or ignorant as the older generation. Bottom line for me: imprisonment, firing, and horrible discrimination needs to stop. Specifically, the bishops need to reflect Christian values, not dogmatic and dangerous, hurtful rhetoric against LGBT people.

    • John Logan February 29, 2016 / 3:53 am

      Actually Pope Francis has called on catholics to defend religious freedom and the traditional family as ordained by God. Pope Francis did not call on Catholics to defend LGBT rights. He is a son of the church.

  3. Friends February 25, 2016 / 5:50 am

    I pointed out a few months ago that Pope Francis is “the consummate Jesuit” — a master of political rhetoric, which can be custom-tailored to the particular audience he is trying to court or to appease, as individual circumstances warrant. You’ve just given another perfect illustration of this (perhaps questionable) Jesuitical talent. If he were only willing to say, strongly and forcefully, “In matters of the heart, it’s clear that love and devotion to one another are the prime directives” (to quote the sci-fi rule of law), we’d all be in a lot better shape.

  4. Ed Poliandro February 25, 2016 / 7:04 am

    Great and thoughtful blog as always, Bob.
    For me there is a line between what is good and right and what is wrong , destructive and unjust. I appreciate your statement that Francis is learning as he goes along. So as much as I don’t like it, I can bring myself to respect his current statements on marriage. Parolin’s statement seems to make room for civil unions, which is a huge first step for Italy. I cannot accept and hold my brother accountable for his silence around all the LGBT people who are physically and emotionally abused by laws and attitudes in countries that have nothing to do with mercy. Who knows , maybe he speaks with the African bishops or the Archbishop from the DR on the phone quietly. If not , his mission of Mercy is highly compromised and truly not for everyone. He still
    needs to learn, as we all do, what does Jesus ‘ radical inclusion really mean .
    We “in the pews “also must continue to be voices and protesters for social justice, as part of living out our own Baptismal promises.
    Thank you for asking us to comment.
    Best wishes,
    Ed Poliandro, New York City.

  5. Loretta Larkey February 25, 2016 / 7:43 am

    The pope must publicly address human rights violations and if that’s being political, then so be it.

    • JOHN HILGEMAN February 25, 2016 / 4:09 pm

      Precisely. And to speak out against equality in some instances, while remaining silent when people are being targeted, is to speak quite clearly that those who are LGBT do not deserve equality under the law or protections from discrimination and violence.

  6. spikecrain February 25, 2016 / 9:52 am

    “If man were constant, he were everything.”, as Shakespeare put it. But then Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large – I contain multitudes.” (Both paraphrased here.) So, our Pope is human. He harbors inconsistencies, but he tries, as he should, to be the Voice of our Church, and I am still proud to claim him as our own.

    • Larry February 25, 2016 / 5:07 pm

      The major difference is that millions of people worldwide do not hang on the words of Shakespeare or Whitman or feel that their statements are close to dogma. Since the Pope’s influence is huge, he needs to be aware of how what he says or does not say effect the everyday lives of people. Perhaps he should not refine his thoughts in public.

  7. Larry February 25, 2016 / 5:04 pm

    On a side note, I find it interesting that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops who have always been glad to impose themselves into our civil discourse when they want to oppose gay marriage, have been absolutely [to my knowledge] silent when Trump lambasted the Pope for his remarks about the border wall while in Mexico. Wouldn’t you think that they would want to support their boss especially since it involves adverse comments from a US public figure? Maybe they have read Pope Francis’ thoughts on the Vatican and Italian politics.

    And on topic, I agree with Loretta that condemning any human rights violations is squarely in the Popes’ job description. It is too bad that he is being selective in his condemnations as he did in Africa.

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