It has been a year since Pope Francis uttered those famous words which inspired so much hope in those Catholics who work, hope, and pray for LGBT equality and justice: “Who am I to judge?” So, now a question for LGBT Catholics and their supporters: “Are you better off than you were one year ago?”
Spoken on his plane ride home from World Youth Day in Brazil, the pope’s rhetorical question was stated in regard to gay priests. But, as the year has worn on, many people began to see that the attitude expressed in those words reflected a new spirit in the papacy, especially with regard to LGBT issues.
That interpretation was confirmed when just little over a month later, Pope Francis, in a remarkably candid personal interview, said that church leaders should not be so “obsessed” with “abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.”
The papacy’s new spirit was evidenced by the fact that throughout the year there seemed to be a lowering of the rhetoric that came from the Vatican in regard to same-gender marriage and LGBT people. In Pope Francis’ statements about marriage there was a refreshing absence of references to the threat of marriage being redefined. Indeed, a number of prelates, including Vatican officials, began speaking about the possibility of support for legalized civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Moreover, in the fall, it became public that the pope had written to Kairos, an LGBT Catholic group in Florence, Italy, in response to their letter to him. And at the end of the year the pope’s Jesuit parish in Rome even provided a free funeral for a homeless transgender woman when her family rejected her body.
All of this good news was magnified by the announcement in the later autumn that the pope was calling a synod of bishops to discuss marriage and family topics. Better yet, the Vatican was encouraging bishops to survey the laity about their perspectives on this matter. Indeed, a question about pastoral care of same-gender couples was listed as one of the issues on which the Vatican wanted lay input.
But to get back the original question: “Are you better off than you were one year ago?”
For some, lingering question persisted throughout all the media hype surrounding Pope Francis’ approach: Was all of this just window dressing? Was this just a “kinder, gentler” Vatican that was still promoting the same negative message regarding LGBT people and issues? When were the real changes going to happen? Style is one thing, but substance is another.
Over the past year, I’ve mentioned several times that I think that Pope Francis may not be ready to make big changes, but that he seems to be paving the way for such change in the future. I still think that is true. But, I’ve also come to think of these symbolic gestures by the pope in a new way lately. I think that what he is trying to do is to send up some “test balloons” to see how people react to them.
I think the fact that so many bishops have spoken out in favor of civil unions or have had positive things to say about same-gender couples are proofs that the reactions have been somewhat good. In fact, I’ve noticed that strongly negative statements about same-gender marriage now seem more the exception than the rule.
I admit, however, that American bishops have certainly not been the ones in the forefront of any positive trends. We here in the United States still have to wait for some more positive changes in the episcopacy here. San Francisco’s Archbishop Cordileone spoke at the March for Marriage in June, despite calls that he stay away from an event with many anti-gay sponsors. The U.S. bishops opposed Obama’s executive order barring federal contractors from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual identity and gender expression. Prelates like Philadelphia’s Archbishop Chaput and Springfield, Illinois’ Bishop Paprocki made some egregious statements regarding marriage. In the U.S., we still have a long way to go in terms of better leadership on LGBT issues from our nation’s bishops.
But, of course, bishops are not the entire church. We’ve also witnessed amazing demonstrations of LGBT support from Catholics this year, especially from younger Catholics who have had LGBT teachers fired from their schools. We’ve seen Catholic politicians come out in strong support of marriage equality and gender identity non-discrimination. One Illinois lawmaker even quoted Pope Francis when she expressed here support for that state’s marriage equality law. Throughout the year, we’ve seen an incredible surge of LGBT support on the part of rank and file Catholics. And many of them have been made more bold and optimistic because of Pope Francis’ statements and gestures. Even non-Catholics like Edie Windsor, whose marriage equality case was successful at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 and the editors of Time magazine and The Advocate feel more positively toward the pope.
So, we still have a long way to go, but we should pause for a moment to reflect on how far we have come.
“Are you better off than you were one year ago?”
For me, the answer is “yes!”
(What’s your answer? Post your response to that question in the “Comments” section of this post.)
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry