Discussion and Diversity Bring Unity, Not Schism

I read a commentary this past weekend about the Anglican Church and marriage equality, and one of the points made has me thinking about why the Roman Catholic hierarchy has been so negative on LGBT issues.

An essay by Alf McCreary in Northern Ireland’s Belfast Telegraph responded to the Church of England General Synod’s recent rejection of a bishops’ report re-affirming marriage is only between a man and a woman.  McCreary’s evaluation of the decision is:

“. . . [T]he Church is in a no-win situation. The latest developments in the Church of England , following a three-year process that had attempted to solve this most divisive issue, merely showed how difficult it is, if not impossible, to satisfy both sides.”

McCreary steps back a bit from the Anglican debate to look, somewhat wistfully it seems, at the Roman Catholic situation in regard to marriage equality:

“This [marriage equality] is one of the most difficult issues facing mainstream churches the world over. With the exception of the Roman Catholic Church – it is still firmly against same-sex marriage and gay ordination, despite the fact that many of its clergy and laity are gay and lesbian.

“The Catholic Church’s attitude is the easier to live with. Its overwhelming opposition to LGBT issues stifles open debate, and it presents on the surface at least a united opposition to change.”

I admit that I chuckled a bit when I read these lines, thinking to myself, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”  But then I wondered if maybe McCreary might be onto something.  Is the Roman Catholic hierarchy just afraid that if they open the discussion on this issue that major confusion will break out in the Church?

I have to admit that I often assume that the reason Catholic leaders won’t discuss LGBT issues is because they believe that they know all there is to know and that they are right in their position. McCreary’s essay has me wondering if perhaps another motivation might also exist:  they don’t want division in the Church, which is what is happening in many other Christian denominations, including the Anglicans, who have had the courage to open a discussion.

The synods on the family in 2014 and 2015 are examples where open discussion was finally allowed in the Church, and bishops spoke their minds.  The world did not end.

Granted, LGBT issues received short shrift at the synods, but other contentious issues like divorce/remarriage did get more comprehensive discussions.  And disagreement was enormous, but the Church, as an institution, stayed strong. No schism happened.  In fact, the unity of the Catholic Church probably was strengthened by the discussion.

If Roman Catholic bishops and Vatican leaders think that they will contain the debate on LGBT issues by not providing it an official forum, they are sadly mistaken.  The discussion is happening in all areas and levels of the Church.  It has been going on for decades, even under the previous two popes who actively tried to silence the debate.  Stifling or ignoring the discussion are the things that endanger the unity of the Church, not participating in free and robust discussion.

The universal Christian Church, born on Pentecost, was born amid a diversity of languages, not a single, authoritative one.  The power of the Catholic Church, which claims to a universal one which embraces all cultures and languages, is in its diversity, not its uniformity.

The Catholic discussion of LGBT issues is blossoming and growing. The Spirit will not be silenced. If bishops choose not to be a part of it, they will be the ones who are diminished by their absence.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 20, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

 

NEWS NOTES: Peru, Britain, Poland, Virginia

News NotesHere are some items that might be of interest:

  1. In the heavily Catholic nation of Peru, a recent rise in progressive activism for LGBT equality was recently met with conservative groups organizing a “March for Heterosexual Pride,” according to an article on Towelroad.comSimilarly, in protest to a new sex education and gender equality curriculum, a new group called “Don’t Mess With My Children.”  The group opposes what they call “gender ideology,” a term favored by many Catholic conservative bishops and Pope Francis.

2. The British Medical Association’s new set of staff guidelines encourages employees not to use the term “expectant mothers,” but instead should refer to “pregnant people,” according to The Telegraph. The purpose of the terminology change is to not offend transgender and intersex men who can or have been pregnant.  Bishop Philip Egan, the Roman Catholic bishop of Portsmouth, England, predicted that the new terminology would cause “great confusion and harm.”

3. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said that he did not think the predominantly Catholic nation would accept a change in the Constitution to allow for same-sex marriage, according to TheNews.pl. Duda, a member of the ruling Law and Justice party, which promotes traditional Polish values, family and Catholic traditions, stated in an interview: “I do not think that the political majority today would agree to any amendment to the Constitution in this area, water down this clause and open interpretation that marriage could also include other genders.”  Poland is one of seven nations in the 28-member European Union which bans same-sex marriage, and one of six nations in the federation which does not allow civil unions.

4. The Senate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the U.S.A., has approved a religious liberty bill that would prevent the government from punishing religious organizations which do not allow for same-sex marriage, according to The Christian Times.  The state’s House of Delegates also approved a similar bill.  Both bills appear to be in response to the executive order issued by Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Catholic, that prohibits state contracts from being given to organizations which do not have an anti-discrimination policy protecting sexual orientation and gender identity.  The Virginia Catholic Conference called the two bills “top priority” legislation.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 19, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

 

 

New Book Examines “Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome”

A new book by a University of Virginia history professor makes the claim that same-gender marriages existed in the city of Rome during the Renaissance.

Gary Ferguson, the  Douglas Huntly Gordon Distinguished Professor of French at the Charlottesville school, recently published  Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity and Community in Early Modern Europe  (Cornell University Press, 2016) in which he displays evidence that, while not commonplace and not legal, the idea of marriages between two men or two women did exist in 16th century, just under the shadow of the Vatican.

In an essay for The Daily Beast, Ferguson begins by noting some literary evidence for the practice of same-gender marriages:

“In the late 16th century, the famous French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote about two marriages between people of the same sex. The first involved women in eastern France, the second a group of men in Rome. At the time, same-sex marriages were not recognized by religious or civil law, and sodomy—a term that included a wide range of sexual acts—was a crime. As a result, when those involved were discovered they were usually brought to trial and punished, sometimes by death.”

Ferguson’s thesis is that even in the Renaissance, “marriage was a highly contested issue.”  He explains:

“Marriage between two men or two women might seem like a concept that has emerged only in recent decades. For centuries, however, same-sex couples have appropriated marriage in their own ways.”

Using one of Montaigne’s examples as a case study, Ferguson examines the French writer’s story by exploring  “several sources—diplomatic dispatches, newsletters, fragments of a trial transcript, and brief wills. . . ”   The result is a description of a planned marriage, thwarted by authorities:

“On a Sunday afternoon in July 1578, a sizable group of men gathered at Saint John at the Latin Gate, a beautiful but remote church on the outer edge of Rome. Many of them were friends who had met there on previous occasions. They were mostly poor immigrants from Spain and Portugal but included several priests and friars. They ate and drank in an atmosphere that was festive, yet strangely subdued. It turned suddenly to confusion and fear with the arrival of the police, who arrested 11 of those present. The rest fled.

“The Roman authorities had been tipped off about the group’s plans to celebrate a marriage, perhaps not for the first time, between two of its members. In the end, the wedding between Gasparo and Gioseffe hadn’t taken place: The latter—reportedly ill—failed to appear. But Gasparo was among those taken prisoner, and, following a trial that lasted three weeks, executed.”

Ferguson reveals that the marriage which was to have taken place would not have been a traditional one for many other reasons besides gender, including the fact that it may not have been intended as a sexually exclusive arrangement.  But the fact that such ritual practices is still significant, he claims:

“The evidence, then, points to a handful of motivations behind the Roman weddings. Since the friends took the ceremony seriously enough to put themselves at considerable risk, it very likely served to recognize and sanction Gasparo and Gioseffe’s relationship, claiming that such a union should be possible. At the same time, it may also have had a playful element, parodying and subtly criticizing elements of a traditional wedding.”

In fact, because of the greatly different historical situations,  Ferguson says that these unions are not identical to modern same-sex marriages:

“. . . [T]he context for extending marriage rights to same-sex couples today is very different from the 16th century, when most marriages weren’t based primarily on love and didn’t establish legal equality between the spouses.

“It was after the changes effected by the women’s rights movement in the second half of the 20th century to make the institution more equitable that gay and lesbian activists adopted marriage equality as their major goal.”

Yet, their historical significance must still be considered for another reason:

“. . . [T]he stories from the 16th century show that marriage has never been a universal and fixed phenomenon. It has a contested history, one that both excludes and includes same-sex couples, who have claimed marriage on their own terms.”

Ferguson’s case brings to mind John Boswell’s 1994 Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe which made the case that union ceremonies, equivalent to marriage, between two men or two women took place, often in religious settings, during the medieval era.  Some critics of Boswell claimed that the texts he had which described union ceremonies were not analogous to marriage, but represented other forms of friendship.  Boswell, unfortunately, died shortly after the book’s publication so he could not defend his thesis against such attacks.

I hope to get a chance to read Ferguson’s book in the coming months and provide a full review in a later post here at Bondings 2.0.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 17,  2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit http://www.Symposium2017.org.

 

On St. Valentine’s Day: A Romantic Story of Gay Love Fulfilled

Just in time for St. Valentine’s Day, a story of Catholic LGBT love from Ireland!

The Irish press was all abuzz recently with the news that two gay Irish men, one of whom is a Catholic priest tied the knot in County Clare, exercising their right to marry thanks to a national referendum in 2015.

Rev. Bernard Lynch and Billy Desmond at their wedding in Ireland

Rev. Bernard Lynch and Billy Desmond were married in front of 120 friends and family members in a ceremony at a hotel in the Irish town of Spanish Point.  The booklet for the ceremony was titled:  ““Our Right to Love is our Right to Justice – Billy and Bernard.”

The two had already had a civil union over 10 years ago. According to The Irish Sun, Lynch was the world’s first Catholic priest to have a civil partnership.  The couple has been together for 23 years.

Adding to the festivity of this marriage,  the couple met with Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins at Aras an Uachtarain, the president’s official residence in the week following the ceremony.  According to Ireland’s Herald newspaper, the couple received a personal invitation from Higgins.  Lynch described the meeting:

Lynch, President Michael Higgins, and Desmond

“President Higgins could not have been more welcoming. He put his arms around us when we first met. . . . It was the most powerful homecoming Billy and I have ever had in our lives. President Higgins couldn’t have been more gracious and hospitable. . . . We have been brought in from the cold into the hearth of the nation by a man of such heart.”

In the 1990s,  Lynch had been among the first delegation to meet with a president of Ireland (at the time, Mary Robinson) at the Aras an Uachtarain.

While living in New York City in the 1980s, Lynch was a pioneer in Catholic outreach to the LGBT community, particularly to the segment of the population living with HIV/AIDS.

The Irish Times explained Lynch’s clerical status:

“Fr Lynch came out as a gay priest in the 1980s and is no longer allowed to practice on behalf of the Catholic Church, but he said he continues to consider himself an ordained Catholic priest.”

 

In a separate Times article, Lynch explained how coming out as a gay priest was received three decades ago:

“Fr Lynch first came out as a gay man in 1986 when he was ministering in New York City. In a press interview at the time, he said: ‘If I did lie, if I did pretend, I’d have a job. I could even have a lover on the side . . . I didn’t come out publicly until 1986. As soon as I went public, I lost my job.’ “

In a radio interview, Lynch criticized church teaching and practice in regard to LGBT people, saying that he felt the church had God’s message “very wrong”:

“He said the Catholic Church ‘does terrible damage and it is part of the destruction of gay people’s lives and how that can be Godly? How can that be Christ’s message? Who would choose to be gay? It is God given and our choice is to embrace it.’ “

He added that he hoped the wedding ceremony would help future generations of lesbian and gay people:

“Describing last Friday’s wedding as ‘wonderful,’ Fr Lynch said he hopes that the witness that Billy and himself have given through their marriage tells young people that ‘it is okay to be gay. You are part of God’s design, no matter what your Church or religion says. You are normal and what you are called to do is to love and find a person to love.’ “

One participant at the wedding ceremony told a newspaper, “The love in the room was palpable. It was a beautiful ceremony.” And another participant commented, “The love between the two was magic and oozed spirituality.”

It’s very true that all love is magical and spiritual.  That’s what we celebrate today.  Happy St. Valentine’s Day!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 14, 2017

Balancing Justice and Mercy in Pope Francis’ Teaching

Two key buzzwords of Pope Francis’ papacy have been “justice” and “mercy.”  Time and again, the first Latin American pope has called world leaders to enact justice for the victims of poverty, war, and social oppression.  And just as frequently, he has called church leaders to extend mercy to those who seek God, but whose lives may not conform in every way to the doctrinal purity that was emphasized by the previous two popes.

Among many people who have been observing Pope Francis’ words and deeds about LGBT issues, there has been a fervent hope and desire that he would meld justice and mercy when dealing with internal church matters.  Yes, LGBT Catholics need mercy from church leaders, but they also seek justice, too.  Many have expressed that Francis would direct calls for justice to church leaders, just as he has done to world leaders.

A new essay on the Vatican Insider website by British theologian Stephen Walford shows, in part how Francis has already made this connection between justice and mercy in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. The focus of the essay is about the exhortation’s treatment of allowing divorced/remarried Catholics to receive communion, but, of necessity, to analyze this topic, Walford occasionally argues about the larger questions of justice and mercy.  [The essay is comprehensive in scope, so I will only focus on a few excerpts here.  For those readers with more theological interests, I suggest reading the entire essay by clicking here. A “hat tip” to the UK’s Martin Pendergast for alerting me to this essay.]

After an extensive introductory section on theological and pastoral issues involved in the formation and respect for conscience,  Walford raises an interesting distinction between justice and mercy:

“If there is one major criticism of those who oppose the Holy Father –and this includes some priests and bishops unfortunately – it is an apparent lack of interest in trying to understand the situations of real people. It probably explains why the practice of discernment is so widely ridiculed. To get to the heart of these situations is to open oneself to the possibility that maybe there is more to the story than a legal answer will allow. Personally, I have a suspicion this is why the devotion to the Divine Mercy in the form presented by the Lord to St. Faustina seems to be frowned upon among many traditionalists-certainly in English speaking countries. The justice of God is easier to accept – we have the rules, if we fail we know the consequences; in essence, safety from the awful anger of almighty God. But of course, that is not the way to form a deep friendship with Jesus. Mercy on the other hand implies a God who desires to reach out and lift up; to not ask many questions, rather just see the joy of reconciliation.”

Walford observes, however, that pastoral care that is grounded only in a rules-based approach to Catholic teaching is neither justice nor mercy.  In disputing an American canon law scholar’ argument which values a rules-based approach to the question of the reception of communion, Walford offers a Scriptural example where justice and mercy are united:

“I would humbly suggest to Dr Peters that throwing the law book at all these situations as if pastoral application is not possible is not the way of Jesus. In the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, we know Jesus addressed the Pharisees first. He didn’t dismiss the Law of Moses at all; he simply invited whoever was without sin to throw the first stone. (In fact we could say that he applied a ‘new’ canon to that law with that question). As the Pharisees left the scene one by one, only one was left; the Lawgiver himself-that is a law of love and mercy. Jesus himself was now the only one who had a right (with his new pastoral application!) to stone her to death. But of course he didn’t because the law would have condemned her immediately, and possibly to eternal damnation if no repentance had been shown and no other mitigating factors had rendered her less guilty. No, Jesus wasn’t interested in that outcome, he didn’t even ask if she was sorry; and if she was not repentant, he being God, knew that also. Still the fact remains he ignored the rule and penalty of the law in order for a higher good to possibly come about. He told her to go and sin no more because that was fundamentally more important for her soul than the correct application of the law which would have ended any chance of spiritual ascent.”

And in his conclusion, Walford offers an important interpretive lens with which to read the apostolic exhortation and the pontiff:

“Humility is the key to accepting what may be for some a genuine difficulty in understanding Amoris Laetitia, or indeed the entire charism of Pope Francis.”

Walford’s essay reminds us that the church’s teachings on justice, mercy, sin, and conscience are more complex than we sometimes acknowledge them to be.   If you are interested in these types of questions, and particularly how they apply to LGBT issues, I invite you to attend New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” April 28-30, 2017,  Chicago, Illinois.   Among the topics to be examined in the light of justice, mercy, and LGBT issues will be social ethics, sexual ethics, church employment questions, criminalization laws, youth and young adults, transgender and intersex topics, Hispanic communities, gay priests and brothers, lesbian nuns, and parish ministry.   For full details and registration form, visit www.Symposium2017.org. Register today!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 25, 2017

 

 

Conscience, Yes. But a Common Understanding of It in the Age of Pope Francis? Not Yet.

Be sure to vote for the Best and Worst Catholic LGBT News of 2016. You can vote by clicking here. Voting closes at 5:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. Time on Thursday, December 29th.

A bedrock principle in Catholic morality is the primacy of conscience, a teaching recovered by Vatican II and now being further advanced by Pope Francis. But disputes about what conscience means and how it should be applied have intensified after the release of the pope’s apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, this past April.

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Pope Francis

Theologians Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman offered their reflection on conscience in the National Catholic Reporter. They called the pope’s thoughts on conscience “one of the most important teachings in the apostolic exhortation.” In one paragraph they sketched the main question on conscience in Catholic thought:

“Stated succinctly, is conscience subjective and internal and truth objective and external, whereby the subjective and internal conscience must obey and conform to the objective and external truth? Or does conscience include both the objective and subjective realms, whereby conscience discerns and interprets its understanding of objective truth and exercises that understanding in the subjective judgment of conscience?”

Salzman and Lawler stated the question even more simply, citing theologian Fr. Joseph Fuchs: “Does a truth exist ‘in itself’ or ‘in myself’?” Their analysis is far longer than can be described here, but for anyone inclined to read more, which I highly recommend, you can find it here.

What I will highlight here is their commentary on Pope Francis and his teaching on conscience not only in Amoris Laetitia, but in his earlier exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Salzman and Lawler said the pope’s “model of conscience. . .provides a faithful and merciful guide for couples who are in irregular situations and empowers them to follow their inviolable conscience on this important issue.”

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Todd A. Salzman

Pope Francis, they noted, has said “realities are more important than ideas,” and that ideas cannot be separated from reality but rather the two must be dialectically related.This approach contrasts sharply with some bishops’ interpretation and implementation of Amoris Laetitia. The theologians identified specifically the restrictive pastoral guidelines of Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, which, among other sanctions, bar people in same-gender relationships from parish and liturgical ministries.

Salzman and Lawler proceeded by pointing out the “vast disconnect” between the ideas informing the Magisterium’s teaching on sexual ethics and the realities of Catholics’ lives whereby:

“[T]he majority of educated Catholics judge these norms are detached from reality, and Catholics are following their consciences to make practical judgments on these and other moral matters.”

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Michael G. Lawler

Instead of division, Pope Francis seeks a harmony between ideas and reality. Conscience, the pope says, must be listened to in making up one’s mind about how to act on moral issues and then it must be followed. To not act in accordance with one’s conscience is “a sin.” Without affirming relativism, the pope is offering an “affirmation of objective truth that recognizes plural and partial truths that must be discerned by conscience informed by, among other sources, external, objective norms.”

The theologians cite Pope Francis himself to define the limitations of Amoris Laetitia and affirm the necessary role of conscience to complete its reception. They wrote:

“There is an ‘immense variety of concrete situations’ and situations can be so vastly different that his document, the pope confesses, cannot ‘provide a new set of rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases’ (Amoris Laetitia, 300). The only moral solution to any and every situation is a path of careful discernment accompanied by a priest and a final judgment of personal conscience that commands us to do this or not to do that (Amoris Laetitia, 300-305). Only such an informed conscience can make a moral judgment about the details of any and every particular situation.”

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David Cloutier

Another theologian, David Cloutier, responded to Salzman and Lawler in a piece for Commonweal. He objected to certain points in their article, and made a larger point that he believes continuing battles about conscience and church authority d0 not help the church, nor do such battles “address the real substance of the particular issues of Amoris Laetitia or the larger challenges of Catholic morality.”

While I question much of Cloutier’s argument, which seeks to restrict understandings of conscience in moral theology, he made an interesting point about setting conscience within the context of community:

“I personally would like to read Pope Francis’s teaching in the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia as about a Church that practices Vatican II’s universal call to holiness, even in very difficult and conflicted situations. . .The pope rightly is pushing for a community that is serious and deep in its encounter with Christ and His call to the Kingdom [sic], but does not confuse that ‘holiness’ with a kind of individual athleticism and perfection. . .It is not about jurisdictional arguments. To the contrary, the universal call to holiness is supposed to liberate us from a legalistic account of the morality of the Catholic laity that hinged on applying and authorizing various rules and exceptions. It does so not by ignoring or pretending away difficulties under the guise of personal autonomy, but by pushing us more deeply into ecclesial community so that we can face them together, honestly.”

I think the challenge of Amoris Laetitia’s reception and the larger question of conscience is not Cloutier’s zero-sum structure where conscience recedes while practice of the virtues in community grows. Rather, it is a question of more fully and comprehensively receiving Vatican II, whose teachings include conscience, the universal call to holiness, and many other connected issues for Christian living. This process of reception today means rethinking existing paradigms, even postconciliar ones, and envisioning new possibilities. This process and its fruits are “both/and” realities.

If Cloutier is correct, then what Pope Francis is affirming in his vision of a more inclusive ecclesial community whose members are mature Christians. This kind of church is already being lived into by LGBT Catholics and other people who have been excluded. Precisely because they have been excluded and condemned, such Catholics have had no choice but to form their consciences and live according to them. this process has often been lived out by others in communities at the church’s peripheries, too. Where the institutional church under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI looked backwards, advocating regressive ideas about conscience and authority, marginalized Catholics took Vatican II’s teachings to heart and looked forward.

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Bishops gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica at Vatican II

Pope Francis is, if nothing else, very much a priest formed by the Council. His exhortations, along with his other teachings and daily witness, very much incarnate the Christian life Vatican II imagined for the entire faithful. Like all of us, Francis is imperfect and he shows a particular deficit in his knowledge of gender and sexuality. But unlike his predecessors, he is humble enough to admit he is imperfect; his teaching often poses questions rather than providing answers.

This coming week, I will offer a more thorough analysis of Pope Francis’ engagement with LGBT issues in 2016, and I would invite readers’ own thoughts then. For now, I express this hope for the church in 2017:  May the faithful, especially institutional leaders and ministers, be concerned more about questions than answers, respect for conscience than blind obedience, and unity in diversity than purity through division.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 27, 2016

Pope Francis: An LGBT Year in Review

During his annual pre-Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia last week, Pope Francis sharply criticized Vatican officials for opposing his efforts at ecclesial reform. Some prelates, he said, possessed a “malevolent resistance. . .[that] sprouts from twisted minds and presents itself when the devil inspires bad intentions.”

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Pope Francis at the Christmas liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica

The National Catholic Reporter reported that Francis said such resistance “finds refuge in tradition, in appearances, in formality, in the known, or in the desire to make everything personal without distinguishing between act, actor, and action.”

These remarks are, perhaps, the pope’s most strident acknowledgment that his efforts at reform and renewal are extremely unwelcome by some church leaders. And Francis continued, “It is necessary to reiterate with force that the reform is not an end in itself but is a process of growth and most of all, conversion.”

But what has reform and renewal meant for Pope Francis when it comes to LGBT issues? Are the pope and the entire church experiencing growth and conversion? Or is Pope Francis himself part of a resistance to greater gender and sexual inclusion? Today’s post reviews what the pope has and has not done on LGBT issues in 2016.

The year began with the release of a book-length interview with the pope entitled The Name of God is Mercy. In it, Francis expanded on his now famous 2013 “Who am I to judge” remark. He said lesbian and gay people are, before all else, people with wholeness and dignity who must be welcomed. He importantly offered no condemnation or moral evaluation in regard to sexual ethics, which would have almost certainly been included by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Later in January, in a speech to the Roman Rota, Pope Francis said “there can be no confusion between the family as willed by God, and every other type of union.” Some observers understood these remarks as an intervention to the debate over civil unions going on in Italy at the time. Other observers said the remarks were more about divorced Catholics and annulments, and noted that Francis did not directly intervene in Italian politics about “non-negotiable values” as his predecessors had done.

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Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill

In February, Pope Francis issued a statement with Russian Patriarch Kirill, after their historic meeting, that strongly condemned marriage equality. The leaders said they “regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as [marriage]” and that marriage was “being banished from the public conscience.”

In April, Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) following the two-year process of the Synods on the Family. The exhortation offered some hope, but not much joy for LGBT people and their families, who were largely left out of the document. To read Bondings 2.0’s ongoing coverage about the exhortation, including many reactions and analyses, click here.

In June, Pope Francis called for the church to apologize to lesbian and gay people. He said “the Church must not only ask forgiveness from the gay person who is offended, but she must also ask for forgiveness from the poor too, from women who are exploited, from children who are exploited for labour.” A parish in Australia held a precedent-setting liturgy of forgiveness in response to the pope’s remarks.

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Pope Francis

In July, in a private meeting with Poland’s bishops during his Apostolic Visit there, Pope Francis claimed,  that children were being taught in schools they could choose a gender. He also endorsed remarks by Benedict XVI who said the present era was an “epoch of sin against God the creator.” LGBT advocates pushed back strongly against these comments when they became public a few weeks after the meeting.

In September, the pope weighed in on Mexico’s highly contentious debate over marriage equality, saying during the Angelus one Sunday that he joined the country’s bishops in their efforts “in favor of the family and of life, which at this time require special pastoral and cultural attention worldwide.” Bishops in Mexico have claimed persecution by the state (though these comments must be interpreted in the context of the actual and quite violent persecution against the church in the early 20th century)” and have supported “ex-gay” therapy.

In October, Pope Francis spoke about LGBT issues during one of his in-flight interviews, comments which received mixed reactions from LGBT advocates. First, the pope responded to a question about how he would care pastorally for a person who is gender dysphoric. Francis shared that he had “accompanied people with homosexual tendencies,” even since being elected pope. He also spoke about meeting a transgender man, Diego Neria Lejárraga, in 2015. In his response, the pope used the man’s correct pronouns and said at one point, “He that was her but is he.”

But these more positive remarks also included Francis’ joke that the press should not report “the Pope blesses transgenders.” He criticized as well undefined concepts of gender theory and ideological colonization, and told the strange anecdote of a father who found out his child was being told in school that gender could be chosen. The day before these comments while speaking to clergy in Georgia, Pope Francis had decried the “world war to destroy marriage.

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Pope Francis

As much as Pope Francis himself has weighed in on LGBT issues himself, his name has been invoked by other Catholics in their own comments.

In October, Providence’s Bishop Thomas Tobin said Francis would support the firing of gay music director Michael Templeton. And a Vatican official tweeted that the pope was saddened to find out two former nuns had entered a civil union in Italy, an unconfirmed judgment based solely on the pope’s facial expressions.

Most recently, in December, it was reported that Pope Francis had approved a document on priesthood that reaffirmed a 2005 ban on gay men entering the priesthood.

In a larger trend this year, bishops appear to have been encouraged by Pope Francis’ criticism of  “gender theory” and “ideological colonization” in the context of LGBT issues. You can read several examples of such statements by bishops by clicking here.

But Pope Francis has also been invoked by many LGBT Catholics and allies in work to build a more inclusive church and seek equal rights.

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Yayo Grassi at New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award ceremony.

Yayo Grassi, a former student of the pope’s who remains close with Francis, shared a positive appraisal during New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award Ceremony in October. Following an address by Jesuit Fr. James Martin, Grassi, whose meeting with Pope Francis during his visit to the United States made headlines, said that in Argentina, as Cardinal Bergoglio, the pope disavowed harsh comments against marriage equality attributed to him as misrepresentations by the media. He had actually been writing to nuns in private correspondence to ask them not to use harsh rhetoric. Grassi also said the pope stated:,”In my pastoral work, there is no place for homophobia.

But as much as Pope Francis has said and as much as others have invoked him, there are glaring silences for which any analysis must account. When Pope Francis visited Poland for World Youth Day this summer, a group of Catholic parents with LGBT children asked him to speak against widespread homophobia still present in their society, including violence targeting gay people.  He did not. And the pope has still remained silent about criminalization laws targeting LGBT people, even when church leaders like Malawi’s bishops strongly support such policies.

As you reflect on Pope Francis and LGBT issues, here are a few posts from the past year to read which discuss general papal trends:

Examining the Two Faces of Pope Francis on LGBT Issues” by Vernon Smith

For LGBT Rights, Is Pope Francis a Partisan or Not?” by Robert Shine

Putting Pope Francis’ ‘Ideology of Gender’ Comments in Context” by Cristina Traina

Exploring Pope Francis’ Mixed Messages on LGBT Issues” by Francis DeBernardo

Finally, I offer a concluding note from my own consideration of Pope Francis. More and more, I read his treatment of LGBT issues within the wider context of his papacy and his vision. Pope Francis is clearly limited in his understandings of gender and sexuality, likely stemming from both his own lack of knowledge, and by relying on advisors at the Vatican with a more conservative agenda.

As many have observed, Pope Francis’ actions often speak far louder than his words. These movements to return to Jesus, in their firm commitment to more fully and fervently living out Christian discipleship, can only help the cause of LGBT equality in the long term. None of these positives, however, excuses or lessens the harmful impact of his LGBT negative comments in which he does real damage to people’s lives.

Most importantly for me, Francis has been far more faithful than his immediate predecessors to the teachings of Vatican II. He prioritizes a church of mercy and welcome, a church foremost committed to justice for marginalized and vulnerable people, and a church where honest conversation is practiced to strengthen the faithful’s unity amid tremendous diversity. This vision was present in his Christmas homily, in which he speaks about the honored place of people on the margins:

“The mystery of Christmas, which is light and joy, questions and unsettles us, because it is at once both a mystery of hope and of sadness.  It bears within itself the taste of sadness, inasmuch as love is not received, and life discarded.  This happened to Joseph and Mary, who found the doors closed, and placed Jesus in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn” (v. 7).  Jesus was born rejected by some and regarded by many others with indifference. . .

“The shepherds grasped this in that night.  They were among the marginalized of those times.  But no one is marginalized in the sight of God and it was precisely they who were invited to the Nativity.”

So, what are your thoughts about Pope Francis? Do you evaluate him more positively or more negatively as 2016 concludes? What are your hopes for the pope and the church for 2017? Let us know in the “Comments” section below.

Be sure to vote for the Best and Worst Catholic LGBT News of 2016. You can vote by clicking here. Voting closes at 5:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. Time on Thursday, December 29th.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 27, 2016