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

February 25, 2016

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

Examining Pope Francis’ Apostolic Visit to Mexico Through a Pro-LGBT Lens

February 19, 2016

Pope Francis with crowds in Mexico

Preceding Pope Francis’ visit to the Mexico-U.S. border on Wednesday, an outlet called Borderzine published an article in which they interviewed gay Catholics living near the border about their excitement in getting to see the pontiff in their region.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a former priest and gay Catholic, said of the pontiff:

” ‘I love that he is coming here. . .[He] represents Catholicism, but in all of its diversity. . .He doesn’t condemn people just for being gay, so that certainly makes me feel like at least he is thinking about us. He is not just dismissing gay people and I think that says a lot.’ “

Gilbert Lopez, a Catholic student at the University of Texas, El Paso, said Pope Francis’ compassionate words, especially his famous “Who am I to judge?” remark, helped him come out as gay. He told Borderzine:

” ‘When I was not accepting of my sexuality, when I would come in contact with homosexuals, it was either you’re religious or you’re not. . .A lot of homosexuals get discouraged and it is really sad how they turn against God and against religion because of how rough people can act.”

Lopez expressed hope that with Pope Francis’ attitude of “Who am I to judge?”, the Catholic Church will expand its acceptance of LGBT people. And he reiterated his excitement about the border visit, stating he would attend “as a Latino, as a Catholic and as a gay man” and the experience will “bring all of these me’s together.”

Given Pope Francis’ recent and repeated condemnations of marriage equality, as in his meeting with Russian Patriarch Kirill or while addressing the Roman Rota in January, why do some LGBT Catholics and their allies remain excited by or hopeful about this pope? I believe the answer, at least partially, is evident in examples from his apostolic visit to Mexico.

1. Pope Francis is demanding better bishops. He comprehends that, in a world where many are skeptical of religious institutions, only authentically pastoral leadership that prioritizes mercy will suffice. Addressing Mexico’s bishops, the pope said the present moment “requires pastoral attention to persons and groups who hope to encounter the living Jesus.” He added, “Only a Church able to shelter the faces of men and women who knock on her doors will be able to speak to them of God. If we do not know how to decipher their sufferings, if we do not come to understand their needs, then we can offer them nothing.” In LGBT communities and among their loved ones and friends, many seek God but are stymied by the church’s ministers and structures. Because for decades they failed to listen or show a spirit of encounter, many in the hierarchy are woefully inept at expressing compassion for LGBT people’s sufferings or knowing their needs. This problem leaves the church incapable of receiving LGBT people’s gifts in their fullness. Pope Francis’ bishop appointments are helping renew the church’s leadership and so too are his exhortations to his brother bishops.

2. Pope Francis sees family in a wider context. He clearly disapproves of same-gender marriage and says so, but Pope Francis diverges from other church leaders by refusing to focus on this opposition when discussing family. Addressing families at a stadium in Tuxtla-Gutierrez,  he said the family was “on different fronts. . .weakened and questioned” and again referenced ideological colonization in ambiguous terms. But Pope Francis did not include marriage equality as a threat, instead highlighting contemporary tendencies towards fear of love, social isolationism, and an obsession with wealth as three major detriments to family life. Before his speech, a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic couple and a single mother spoke to the crowd. Their remarks were then referenced positively by the pope. Pope Francis and I may not agree on precisely what constitutes family or what threatens marriage, but we do agree on the importance of family and the church’s mandate to provide pastoral care for all families. I believe that is the essential common ground from which new conversations about family life, already underway in the synodal process, can really flourish.

3. Pope Francis opposes the violence of exclusion. He acknowledges what Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf calls the “violence of exclusion.” Addressing workers, he rejected modern economies which exclude people and promote a throwaway culture. He said, “We all have to struggle to make sure that work is a humanizing moment which looks to the future; that it is a space for building up society and each person’s participation in it. . . [to] transform society into a culture capable of promoting a dignified space for everyone.” More than 60 church workers since 2008 have been “thrown away” by the church, having their jobs because of LGBT issues. These injustices deprive them of work which is humanizing and deprive the church of these workers’ transformative labor. Pope Francis may not yet fully comprehend the ways in which the church itself harms people, but it would not be a stretch to flip his concern for exclusion by the church back onto the church. Indeed, the thousands of Catholics who oppose church worker injustices testify to this.

4. Pope Francis rejects parameters on God’s love. LGBT Catholics and their loved ones have too frequently experienced fellow Catholics explaining God’s love in ways that are restrictive. Denying sacraments to people or refusing to recognize the existence of divine love in one’s relationship or the holiness of one’s identity are all ways parameters are falsely imposed on God’s love. Pope Francis rejects this attitude forcefully. Addressing prisoners, the pope again said God’s love is expansive, ever present, and exists for all people, saying:

“United to you and with you today, I want to reiterate once more the confidence that Jesus urges us to have: the mercy that embraces everyone and is found in every corner of the world. There is no place beyond the reach of [God’s] mercy, no space or person it cannot touch.

During his many apostolic trips since 2013, Pope Francis routinely prioritized visits to places and with communities which exist on the world’s margins, such as Ciudad Juárez and U.S.-Mexico border. By his own admission, the pope seeks to bring God’s love and the world’s attention to these places. He does not yet pay enough attention to those existing at the church’s margins, such as LGBT people, but by leading the church to be a “poor church for the poor,” he is creating space for Catholics to go to the margins of our church and to then center the experiences of those marginalized. That is where we come in and why I share in the hopes of Lopez and Sáenz described at the beginning of this post.

For those concerned with building up a just and inclusive Catholic Church, there are reasons to hope in the era of Pope Francis. There remain deep problems, too, found in unhealed wounds and newly imposed sufferings. But each time Pope Francis travels and I follow his visits, watching videos and reading texts, I find myself uplifted. He is not the pope who will suddenly perform a same-gender wedding ceremony on the high altar of St. Peter’s. He will not be ordaining a woman. But he is the pope saying, “Go out into the world and minister in the reality of life!” And once that happens, the fact is the church, led by the Spirit, cannot be unchanged by encountering the beauty of God’s people in all our diversity.

Church renewal is always acknowledged after it already has happened.  For instance, the recent approval of washing female feet on Holy Thursday reflected a changet that was already a living reality for many Catholics. Right now, the church is changing even if we cannot see it or church leaders refuse to acknowledge the transformation. Now, more than ever, is the time for us to step into this freer space created by Pope Francis and carry out our work for justice in the church. As a group of migrant women, who walked 100 miles to see the pope, chanted: “Francisco, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” Yes, Pope Francis, listen. We are in the fight indeed.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Mexican Bishop Calls Homophobic People “Sick”

July 17, 2014

Bishop Raul Vera

In an interview with El País newspaper, the outspoken bishop used some of his most powerful arguments yet to show how Catholic leaders need to refine some of their language in regard to LGBT people and marriage equality.  Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

“Q. Not long ago you baptized the daughter of a lesbian couple. What do you think about homosexuality?

“A. That is a topic that we have refused to address. The people who say homosexuals are sick are sick themselves. The Church needs to come to them not with condemnation, but with dialogue. We cannot cancel out a person’s richness just because of his or her sexual preference. That is sick, that is heartless, that is lacking common sense.

“Q. Is it not the same with abortion?

“A. I share the Church’s views on abortion, and see it as murder. The difference lies in how you penalize it. Abortion, just like same-sex marriage, has served us subterfuge to tell ourselves that we in the Church have our morals. It is very easy to go against a woman who has an abortion, it poses no trouble and we have support from the ultraconservative right. When there was a national campaign against abortion here, I organized rosary recitations to reflect on the defense of the lives of migrants, miners and women as well as the unborn. But we are hypocrites. It would seem that the only moral rules deal with condemning same-sex couples and abortions. You do that and you’re the perfect Christian.

The full interview, in English, can be read by clicking here.

This is not the first time that Bishop Vera has made strong statements about homophobic people.  Almost a year ago, he made headlines by calling homophobia “a mental illness in which you see gays as depraved and promiscuous. You have to be sick in the head for that.”

At the time of that earlier statement, I made the following comment on this blog, which I think is appropriate to repeat at this time:

“It is wonderful to know that this bishop is speaking out so strongly for lesbian and gay rights.  One caution:  I don’t think that he was using ‘mental illness’ as a technical or clinical term.  From the manner in which he is speaking on the video, he seems to be using it as a rhetorical flourish, more than a diagnosis.  It is interesting to see him turn the tables on homophobic people:  it is usually they who are calling lesbian and gay people ‘mentally ill.’

“And because lesbian and gay people have so often been so mislabeled with that diagnosis, I think we have to be very careful of labeling their opponents in the same way.  In my experience in working with LGBT issues, homophobia is more often a result of ignorance and misguided piety than by a clinical disturbance.”

While noting that distinction, it’s important to recognize that Bishop Vera operates out of deep courage fpr speaking out for all sorts of marginalized groups.  The El País article referred to him as

“the Mexican bishop who holds the record for death threats. He has survived more than one attempt on his life, and his work in favor of missing persons, immigrants, children and juveniles, indigenous populations, prostitutes and pariahs of all types has earned him the undying hatred of many, including the drug rings.”

In the interview, he explains how his work with exploited indigenous communities in southern Mexico taught him about the importance of courage:

“I learned that you have to risk your life if you want to stand on the side of the poor. I learned that in order to defend human life, you have to put your own life on the line. There is no other way to be a shepherd.”

In The Advocate’s report on this story, they noted:

“In 2011, when John Paul II was pope, the Vatican investigated Vera’s work with a gay group. But much has changed under Pope Francis’s leadership.”

The El País article made note of the change of atmosphere in the Church since that time:

“For a long time, Raúl Vera was the Catholic Church’s black sheep, the old-fashioned left-winger. But that was until the ideological earthquake represented by the new pope, Francis I, gave renewed relevance to his words. Now, other bishops are suddenly turning to Vera for guidance.”

Let’s hope and pray that his guidance sways many more bishops to his line of thinking.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Mexican Bishop Calls Homophobia a “Mental Illness”

August 23, 2013

A Mexican Catholic bishop who has been a strong supporter of LGBT issues has declared that homophobia is a “mental illness.”  Is that really an accurate classification?

The Billerico Project is reporting on an interview given by Bishop Jose Raul Vera Lopez to a television show, “Terra Mexico,” in which he stated:

“Why would I immediately think a gay or lesbian person is perverse or depraved the moment they approach me? That’s how people who are homophobic react. It’s a mental illness in which you see gays as depraved and promiscuous. You have to be sick in the head for that.”

Bishop Vera Lopez, who is the head of the Diocese of Saltillo, Mexico,   You can view a two and a half minute  video clip from the interview complete with English subtitles here:

Here are some other notable quotations from the interview in regard to lesbian and gay people:

“They are human beings and deserve respect.  The Holy Father knows it’s a. . . .I am certain he knows because the reality is that many in the church do not want to acknowledge the scientific reality on the issue of sexuality.  They want to keep homosexuality as a form of human perversion, an illness.  But that is no longer the case, scientifically speaking. “

Bishop Vera Lopez also commented on Scripture citations which seem to condemn gay and lesbian persons:

“We just have to read the Bible more carefully within a historical context and within a real context.  The Biblical texts we have used to bash the heads of homosexuals to say they are condemned by the Bible?  We have to read them much more carefully.”

Bishop Jose Raul Vera Lopez

Bishop Jose Raul Vera Lopez

It is wonderful to know that this bishop is speaking out so strongly for lesbian and gay rights.  One caution:  I don’t think that he was using “mental illness” as a technical or clinical term.  From the manner in which he is speaking on the video, he seems to be using it as a rhetorical flourish, more than a diagnosis.  It is interesting to see him turn the tables on homophobic people:  it is usually they who are calling lesbian and gay people “mentally ill.”

And because lesbian and gay people have so often been so mislabeled with that diagnosis, I think we have to be very careful of labeling their opponents in the same way.  In my experience in working with LGBT issues, homophobia is more often a result of ignorance and misguided piety than by a clinical disturbance.

Another comment worth noting is that during the interview, Bishop Vera Lopez discusses the genesis of sexual orientation as being a result of hormonal influences in the womb.  With all due respect to the bishop, while that is one theory, it is still simply a theory, and not totally conclusive as the effective cause of one’s homosexuality.  The scientific community is still debating various theories as to the origin of sexual orientation in an individual.

Despite these cautions, I am delighted to read these statements from this courageous bishop.  Our church needs more leaders like him who are willing to approach LGBT issues from a knowledgeable and compassionate perspective.

Bishop Vera Lopez has spoken out many times before on lesbian and gay equality.  In fact, he was even summoned to the Vatican to defend his point of view, but no sanctions were administered to him.  You can read more about him in an article that appears on page three of this PDF of the newsletter version of Bondings.   You can also read more about other social issues with which this Nobel Peace Prize nominee is associated by clicking here.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


NEWS NOTES: December 24, 2012

December 24, 2012

News NotesHere are some news items which may be of interest:

1) Read the inspiring Huffington Post story of Sister of Charity Margaret Farrell who works at Los Angeles’ Covenant House, a shelter and social service agency for homeless teenagers.  Of her work, Sister Margaret says:

“Some say, how can I, as a nun, surround myself with such people — gays, transsexuals, HIV-positive clients?”I usually respond: Read the Bible. Look which people Jesus surrounded himself with.”

2) According to a story, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has called upon the Maryland Catholic Conference (MCC) to publicly denounce Michael Peroutka’s $10,000 donation to the Maryland Marriage Alliance (MMA), the coalition which organized the state campaign to overturn marriage equality.  Peroutka is a member of  the League of the South, a neo-Confederate, secessionist organization labeled an “explicitly racist” hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.The MCC was a founding organizer of the Maryland Marriage Alliance. HRC is also calling on the MMA to return the donation.

3) The Supreme Court of Mexico, a heavily Catholic nation, has issued a decision that paves the way for marriage equality to become legal in the entire nation, according to the AfterMarriage blog.   Marriage equality is already legal in Mexico City, the nation’s capital district.

4) Joseph Amodeo, a Catholic writer who blogs at, offers “A Catholic Reflection on HIV/AIDS and the Call to Love,” which was originally presented as a talk on December 1, 2012, World AIDS Day,  at St. Augustine Catholic Church, Brooklyn, New York.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Mexico’s Muxe Culture Paves the Way for Catholic Acceptance of Transgender People

June 9, 2012

Forget all your binary oppositions about gender, sexuality, and religion as you read this post.

National Public Radio recently posted a story on their “Picture Show” site which examines a photo gallery exhibit about Muxe culture which thrives in Oaxaca, Mexico. The article explains:

“The indigenous Zapotec culture of Oaxaca is not divided by the usual dichotomies: gay or straight, male or female. There’s a commonly accepted third category of mixed gender — people called muxes. (said to derive from mujer — Spanish for “woman”). Some are men who live as women, or who identify beyond a single gender.”

Alex Hernandez, foreground, takes part in a religious procession during Oaxaca’s celebration of muxe people.

The gallery show is titled “Searching for Queertopia,” and it is being hosted by the Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, California.  The photographs are by Neil Rivas, who follows Alex Hernandez, a muxe living in the U.S., as he goes to Oaxaca

“. . .for a three-day festival called Vela de Las Intrepidas — or Vigil of the Intrepids. Created in the 1970s, the festival is a celebration of ambiguity and mixed gender identities, and for Hernandez, it was like a rite of passage.”

The NPR story describes not only the exhibit, but an interesting point about the involvement of Catholic priests in muxe culture:

The images capture Hernandez in his personal transformation — as well as blurred lines between gay and Catholic cultures, lines he was not encouraged to cross as a child. But in Juchitan de Zaragoza, where the festival is held, some Catholic priests hold services for muxes.

The NPR website carries 12 photos from the exhibit, including several showing the Catholic rituals that are part of the celebration.  

Muxepeople are valued in their culture.  In the interview, Hernandez explains:

“They have an important role. . . .They take care of their parents. … It was nice to know that … there’s this history where queer people had special roles in society.”]

In 2006, The New York Times carried an article about muxe culture which explains the history and religious significance of this phenomenon, noting:

“Anthropologists trace the acceptance of people of mixed gender to pre-Colombian Mexico, pointing to accounts of cross-dressing Aztec priests and Mayan gods who were male and female at the same time. Spanish colonizers wiped out most of those attitudes in the 1500s by forcing conversion to Catholicism. But mixed-gender identities managed to survive in the area around Juchitán, a place so traditional that many people speak ancient Zapotec instead of Spanish.”

The Times article contains a proviso that not all muxes are accepted, but its final conclusion offers hope from the faith of a wise grandmother:

“Acceptance of a child who feels he is a muxe is not unanimous; some parents force such children to fend for themselves. But the far more common sentiment appears to be that of a woman who takes care of her grandson, Carmelo, 13.

“ ‘It is how God sent him,’ she said.”

Catholics in the U.S. have a lot to learn from our Mexican hermanos and hermanas.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry