The development of a new religious devotion among Mexican transgender persons highlights the growing chasm between LGBT people and the Catholic Church in one of the world’s most Catholic nations, as well as the tragic circumstances among which many transgender people live.
Religion News Service recently reported on the growth among trans Mexicans of the “Santa Muerte” (“Saint Death”) devotion, the practice of honoring and praying to the skeletal figure of “Death.” The news story explained:
“The skeleton saint — with her female form and association with death — is particularly appealing to transgender sex workers, who face the persistent threat of violent clients and transphobic hatred.
“Unlike official church figures such as Our Lady of Guadalupe whose images are ethereal, Santa Muerte appeals to those with practical problems and passions living on the country’s margins. Devotees ask her for protection, even when sex work is their only occupation.
” ‘The majority of us believe in Santa Muerte,’ said [Betzy] Ballesteros [a trans sex worker]. ‘She’s a God to us. I ask her to shield me from danger and provide work and clients.’
“The cult of Santa Muerte is an example of religious syncretism, with roots in European Catholicism and Aztec beliefs.”
The Catholic hierarchy has condemned the devotion, just as they have expressed many negative messages about transgender people:
“The Rev. Hugo Valdemar Romero, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, said the church does not abandon or excommunicate transgender people. But he does believe they suffer from pathology.
” ‘Of course it is not acceptable for someone to violate their own biology,’ he said. ‘Nature is very clear. There are men and there are women.’
“As for Santa Muerte, Romero considers it a heretical cult.
“. . . .Despite the church’s condemnation, many Santa Muerte devotees describe themselves as Catholic.”
Though the hierarchy condemns the new devotion, it seems that they don’t recognize their own part in its creation. Andrew Chesnut, a religious studies scholar from Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied the devotion, explains that the new tradition arose to serve a need that established churches were not meeting:
“Mexican Catholics and evangelicals tend to view transgenderism as a lifestyle choice. But the fact that Santa Muerte is outside the orbit of both evangelical and Catholic Christianity makes her much more appealing. It’s much easier for followers to feel that she’s not going to be judgmental.”
And the lived experience of trans Mexicans testifies not only to violence they face in society but also the rejection they receive from churches:
“The civil rights organization Transgender Europe has documented 247 killings of transgender people in Mexico between January 2008 and April 2016, the second-highest number in the world, after Brazil.
“The life expectancy of transgender women in Latin America is 35, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
” ‘Transgender people are more likely to become involved in substance and alcohol abuse and they are less likely to have strong networks of family and others on whom they can count,’ said Cymene Howe, an anthropologist who has studied the importance of Santa Muerte among transgender sex workers who migrate between Guadalajara and San Francisco.”
And Betzy Ballesteros, the sex worker quoted above, offered testimony of her experience with the church:
“I went with some transgender friends to Mass one time. The priest stopped his sermon and told us to leave the house of God. After that, I decided I wouldn’t ever go back.”
If Catholic Church leaders in Mexico believe that this devotion is harmful to its adherents, they must first recognize that their own harmful actions towards trans people are encouraging the worship of Santa Muerte to flourish. When people are scorned and rejected, they will find their own path to God. The surest way for Church leaders to win back trans people to the ecclesial community is for them to end their negative rhetoric which causes both physical and spiritual death.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 9, 2017
Throughout the past autumn, Bondings 2.0 has been reportingon the same-sex marriage debate in the heavily Catholic nation of Mexico. As we reported, Mexican bishops, supported by Pope Francis, led the opposition to the campaign for making marriage equality, which already exists in several Mexican states, a reality throughout the entire nation.
Earlier this month, the proposal for marriage equality was defeated with a vote of 18-9 by the Commission on Constitutional Matters in the lower house of the Mexican legislature. Yet, despite the loss, the experience may be a positive turning point for the Mexican Catholic hierarchy in terms of taking steps, however small, towards respect for LGBT people.
Key to this change is the Vatican’s nuncio to Mexico, Archbishop Franco Coppola, appointed in July 2016 by Pope Francis . In response to the marriage equality proposal, Coppola called for a more civil discussion of this, and other controversial topics. The Catholic Herald reported:
“Amid the activism, comments on same-sex marriage from the new apostolic nuncio to Mexico appear to suggest the Vatican would prefer a less confrontational approach.
” ‘Mexicans, rather than confronting each other, making proclamations or marching, have to sit down at the table and talk to each other,’ Archbishop Franco Coppola told reporters.
” ‘When we are speaking of the constitution, it has to become something that all Mexicans, or at least a great majority of Mexicans, can share.’ “
The Pilotreported that some observers see the archbishop’s comments as a Vatican decision to soften anti-gay rhetoric:
“Some media, such as the Spanish newspaper El Pais, interpreted the remarks as the Vatican ‘de-authorizing the anti-gay marches.’ “
Earlier in the marriage equality debate, Coppola also spoke words of reconciliation and outreach to gay and lesbian people. The Yucatan Times reported:
“. . . [T]he apostolic nuncio, Franco Coppola, said it is necessary to recognize gay rights as any other citizens’ rights.
” ‘The doctrine of the Church is the doctrine of the Church, but we have to adapt it so we can offer answers to men and women of different times,’ the new representative of the Vatican in Mexico told reporters.”
Coppola is not the only Catholic leader in Mexico who has softened his rhetoric. Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, Archbishop of Mexico City and Primate of Mexico, recently apologized for negative comments he made about the sexual acts of some gay men, and he invited “people attracted to the same sex” to meet with priests, acknowledging that church ministers need education.
“In the past, Cardinal Carrera maintained that he would not apologize for his rhetoric toward the LGBT community even if it was considered offensive by some people, but something seems to have changed in him, as he recently came out on behalf of the Archdiocese of Mexico and asked for forgiveness if at any moment they had used ‘inadequate expressions’ to refer to the gay community, saying ‘you should know that it was never my intention to offend anyone.’ “
The cardinal also stated:
” ‘You have asked me about people attracted to the same sex coming to the vicarage to discuss the subject, and I not only see it as an agreeable idea, but as a necessary one,’ he said. ‘Priests shouldn’t be expected to know all that there is to know; many times, they must also be taught about a topic.’ “
The statements made by Coppola and Rivera Carrera are good first steps. Perhaps the extremism of the Mexican debate on marriage equality made them realize that the hierarchy’s rhetoric was too heated and pastorally harmful. Perhaps the example of Pope Francis has awakened them. At a minimum, let’s hope that Rivera Carrera learned his lesson not to be so focused on particular sexual acts, as if they defined the totality of a person or a relationship.
These small steps of openness need to be built upon, and the next time Mexico looks at a marriage equality proposal, perhaps the nation’s bishops will conduct themselves more civilly. If they don’t these recent statements will sound like a noisy gong and clanging bell.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, November 29, 2016
A leading LGBT organization in Mexico publicly named nearly forty Catholic priests and religious as gay, the latest move in the country’s escalating debate over LGBT rights.
The National Pride Front released the names of 38 priests and religious who are allegedly in same-gender relationships, reported The Telegraph. Front spokesperson Cristian Galarza explained the decision to release these names:
” ‘Everyone deserves the right to be in the closet. . .But when you come out and condemn homosexuality, condemn gay marriage, and try to influence a secular state, you’ve lost the right to the closet.’ “
The Front said they were not condemning the relationships, but the double standards of church leaders in them who then forcefully oppose marriage equality. The list included ranking church officials and, according to Galarza, not only consensual relationships but “also cases of sexual abuse.”
The decision to publish this list has not only been criticized by conservative opponents of LGBT equality, but by LGBT groups who are upset that anyone would be forcibly outed. Enrique Torre Molina of All Out told The Telegraph:
” ‘They can spin it anyway they want, but they’re ultimately using someone’s sexual orientation as a tool against that person, which is exactly what the LGBT movement is not about. . .If anyone knows how tough it can be to have your sexual orientation used against you, it is a gay or lesbian person.’ “
The list’s publication came ahead of demonstrations against LGBT rights last weekend, organized by the church-backed National Front for the Family. Because some LGBT groups opposed the release of the list of allegedly gay clergy and religious, the organizations skipped counter-protests organized by the National Pride Front.
Some counter-protestors, however, used the demonstrations as an opportunity to practice a different approach to their opponents: dialogue. La Jornadareported:
“For example, a group of people, young and old, straight and gay, stood in front of the Gate of the Lions armed with posters, water bottles, and benches.
“Two poster boards carried by Saúl Espino, one of the first to stand in place, summed up their motives: Our goal is to deactivate hate through dialogue and give a voice, history, and face to diversity. The other sign: I’m a Catholic and I’m gay. I want to talk with you!”
Marriage equality and other rights for LGBT people are hotly contested issues in Mexico after President Enrique Peña Nieto announced in May that he would be pushing Congress to approve such laws.For further context, see Bondings 2.0’s coverage of Mexico earlier this week by clicking here.
While legislative movement has stalled, opposition from anti-LGBT groups has swiftly increased. Earlier this month, a spokesperson for the Mexican church warned of a “gay dictatorship” and approved of reparative therapy. Certain LGBT groups have responded in kind, filing discrimination complaints against dioceses and church leaders in several states.
In my previous post on Mexico, I said de-escalation was needed from both sides so that dialogue could replace divisive statements. De-escalation is especially important because of the release of this list, which is to be condemned in the strongest terms. There is no justification for forcibly outing any person, even priests and religious who may be actively opposing LGBT rights and relationships. The question of gay and bisexual men in the priesthood is a personal, as well as a public matter. The church’s negative treatment of them has caused much suffering. It is also deeply troubling that acts of sexual abuse were included in this list given conservative efforts to conflate homosexuality and abuse.
LGBT advocates should not be adding to the pain which LGBT people in ministry and survivors of clergy abuse have already had to endure by uncritically publishing this list. Rather, LGBT advocates should always and everywhere overcome the prejudices and fears driving LGBT-negative figures by responding with love and compassion.
Tensions over LGBT rights have been increasing in Mexico over the past two months, with Catholic bishops there taking a strong stand against marriage equality. The debate in that nation has elicited some strident rhetoric from both sides, with strong charges of persecution by their opponents from each side. And, Catholic bishops have received the endorsement of a powerful Catholic voice in their anti-marriage equality campaign: Pope Francis.
The rhetoric of persecution has now enjoined the bishops in a battle about the much-disproven field of reparative therapy, which the bishops have endorsed.
Mexico’s National Council to Prevent Discrimination (Conapred), a governmental agency, recently denounced reparative or “ex-gay” therapy, responding to an article in Catholic media titled “No one is born gay.”
The country’s bishops reacted negatively to Conapred’s denunciation, reported Pink News. Fr. Hugo Valdemar, a spokesperson for the bishops, said:
“There is persecution against the Church. . .It is something very serious, the state now determines the sexual behavior of citizens and forbids any attempt to return to normalcy.
“The state prohibits parents from helping their children to solve their sexual doubts and prohibits homosexuals from changing, but if they want to change their sex they fund that atrocity, it’s something diabolic.”
Valdemar said there would be a “gay dictatorship” soon under which people who disagree with LGBT rights would be imprisoned.
Debates over LGBT rights have intensified in recent weeks after President Enrique Peña Nieto said in May that he would push Congress to pass marriage equality, adoption rights for same-gender partners, non-discrimination protections, and allowances for people to self-identify their gender on official documents. Just ten of Mexico’s 31 states do not have bans on same-gender marriages in place. Peña Nieto’s federal effort seeks to override such bans, and implement LGBT protections universally.
However, LGBT advocates have challenged the president’s commitment, suggesting that his announcement in May might have caused more harm then good. After Peña Nieto’s party suffered losses in June elections, LGBT issues have been sidelined by parrty leaders. But his announcement did stir intense opposition from the Catholic hierarchy and other groups opposed to LGBT rights.
The anti-equality group National Front for the Family has organized dozens of rallies across Mexico, according to Animal Politico. Reports from ABC News said about 215,000 people turned out for anti-marriage equality rallies this past weekend, following up on earlier protests on September 10th. The National Front is primarily supported by the Catholic hierarchy in Mexico with key bishops offering their support in an August 12th letter.
Fr. Valdemar attempted to withdraw such direct support by the bishops later in August, saying moral support for the marches offered by church leaders was in favor of marriage and family, not opposed to any specific legislation or community of people. Church leaders have led marches or rallies in at least eleven states between the September 10th and September 24th demonstrations.
Following the September 10th rallies, TeleSur reported that Conapred released a statement implicitly critical of the bishops’ involvement, saying the denial of equal marriage rights is “an affront to [gay couples] dignity and their integrity.” The statement said further:
” ‘Encouraging discrimination against people because of their sexual and gender orientation or status, as well as trying to exclude families that do not replicate the traditional nuclear model, through expressions and speeches that may incite hatred and violence, as has happened in recent months, violates the human rights of all people.’ “
Pro-equality organizations have organized their own rallies, including one on September 11th which ended at the cathedral in Mexico City. There the National Pride Front of Mexico, an umbrella group for 70 LGBT organizations, launched a campaign calling for the removal of the city’s archbishop, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera. Spokesperson Patria Jimenez explained the Front was appealing to Pope Francis because, TeleSur reported:
” ‘We want to stop the speeches of violence. We respect freedom of expression and we have open arms. The Church says that it preaches love for your neighbor, but today we see that it promotes hatred.’ “
Rhetoric about marriage equality LGBT rights has been heated and hyperbolic from both sides. Bishop Pedro Pablo Elizondo of Cancun said he would “go to prison to defend the family” where he said “some charitable soul would go to visit me, especially in this year of mercy.”
On the other side, La Jornada reported a national strategy put forth by the group Equality Mexico to file discrimination complaints against the Catholic Church in multiple regions. For instance, LGBT coalition Red Positiva filed a discrimination complaint with Conapred against Bishop Elizondo. Cruxreported:
“The complaint filed also claimed the bishop was opposing article 130 of the Mexican Constitution, which dictates that religious ministers can’t oppose the law nor call the faithful to do so in any public event or religious ceremony.”
Victor Aguirre Espinoza and Fernando Urias Samparo, the first same-gender couple to marry in the state of Mexicali, filed a complaint against the Catholic Church with the governor there. They claim church leaders have violated Article 8 of the Law of Religious Associations, which the plaintiffs allege means religious organizations cannot intervene in politics and must the respect human rights of all people, reported La Voz de La Frontera.
Elsewhere, two LGBT groups filed a complaint against the Archdiocese of Tijuana, specifically alleging that Archbishop Francisco Moreno Barrón had incited hate speech. Equality Mexico filed a complaint against the Archdiocese of Mexico City with the Ministry of the Interior. Complaints are expected in Chihuahua, Yucatán, Hidalgo, and Sinaloa as well.
Finally, Crux reported that Pope Francis offered support for Mexico’s bishops following the Angelus yesterday, saying
” ‘I join willingly the Bishops of Mexico in supporting the efforts of the Church and civil society in favor of the family and of life, which at this time require special pastoral and cultural attention worldwide.’ “
Francis has refrained from entering debates about legal protections for same-gender couples in many countries, including the United States and Italy. But he involved himself when LGBT issues were being debated in Slovakia and Slovenia. This bifurcated response is puzzling.
Mexico is the world’s second largest Catholic nation with nearly 100 million people, or more than 80% of the population, identifying as Catholic. But opinions are equally divided on marriage equality. 40% of Mexicans support equal rights, 40% oppose them, and 10% have no opinion per polling in early September, reported Vanguardia.
When considering what is happening in the country on LGBT rights, one must be keep in mind that Mexico has a troubled and violent history between the church and secular government, including anti-clerical laws in the early 20th century which led to many churches being closed and the oppression and even murder of priests. While laws have changed and tensions lessened, the legacy of these decades lingers. Furthermore, church ministers are targeted today as part of the country’s drug-related violence.
These realities may cause prelates to make extreme claims like the church is being persecuted or suggestions they would be jailed. But church leaders should be more responsible in their rhetorical actions, instead of using hyperbolic and inflammatory terms like “gay dictatorship.” Actual violence in the past and today makes it especially troubling that church leaders and LGBT advocates have both used such charged language in this debate. Where the church should be a unifying force for the promotion and expansion of human rights for all people, including LGBT communities, it is instead acting as a source of unnecessary pain and conflict.
De-escalation from both sides would be advisable, as it would likely allow dialogue to replace divisive tactics. Dialogue could produce laws which are respectful of every person’s dignity and the rights of religious institutions. Such laws would ultimately advance the common good, and that is the cause to which all sides should ultimately commit themselves.
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.
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.
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:
“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 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.