Pope Francis Walks With LGBTQ People, One Step Forward, Big Steps Back

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On immigration, the environment and the rights of the poor, Pope Francis has consistently pushed Catholics to fulfill what he sees as the church’s mission to “go to the margins.” On gender and sexuality, however, the Pope has occasionally seemed to twist himself in knots to avoid sounding like one of the narrow-minded church leaders he is often wont to criticize.

The pope and the Catholic church are both on a learning curve, scrambling to keep up with the larger social acceptance of LGBTQ people in many Western nations. Francis is, after all, a 79-year-old Argentine, and sometimes his ideas about gender reflect his complex responses to the pervasive machismo of the Latin American culture in which he was raised.

When Argentinian president Christina Kirchner helped push through legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, Francis—then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio—lead a march against same-sex marriage and sent a letter to all Argentinian priests asking them to speak against the law for the “unalterable good of marriage and the family.” In response, Kirchner said that the law was simply about “un realidad que ya esta,” or “a reality that already exists.”

That “reality that already exists” has been a struggle through the three years of Francis’ pontificate. As with many members of his generation, his struggle to understand the realities of LGBTQ life has been one of small steps forward, large steps back.

He is still a man marked by decades of theology that don’t recognize gender fluidity, he still struggles to understand feminism and its relationship with LGBTQ rights, and he still has to deal with leading a global church where simply being LGBTQ can get you killed in many countries.

During his trip to America last year, he was hornswoggled into a “secret” meeting with Kentucky law clerk Kim Davis by the former Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States. Vigano resigned in the fallout after Francis’ visit, when the Vatican had to deny the visit was an endorsement of Davis’ refusal to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

On the same trip, however, Francis also had a private meeting with his former student Yayo Grassi and Grassi’s boyfriend. In a video of the meeting, Francis recalls having previously met Grassi’s boyfriend in Rome and gives them both hugs and cheek kisses. The Vatican press office had to scramble yet again and emphasize that the meeting with Grassi was “in a spirit of kindness, welcome and dialogue” and not an endorsement of Grassi’s same-sex relationship.

The last word in that statement from former Vatican press officer Rev. Frederico Lombardi is important to note. Like Francis, Lombardi is a Jesuit, and Francis’ continuous calls to dialogue among Catholics reflects their shared Jesuit theology. Shortly after being elected, Pope Francis told a group of Jesuits that their mission begins with establishing “dialogue with all peoples, even those who do not share the Christian faith.”

But beyond interreligious dialogue, many Jesuits also train in spiritual direction, which is a guided one-on-one conversation about faith. Jesuits often teach and write in addition to working in pastoral ministry during their formation, all practices that involve a fair amount of back and forth with people from all over the Catholic spectrum. Rather than “either/or,” Jesuits like to talk about “both/and,” another invitation to dialogue. Even their daily prayer, the Examen, is a form of dialogue with God.

With that background as a Jesuit, it’s no wonder that the pope often follows broader sweeping statements about gender and sexuality with pastoral stories. Vatican journalists have come to expect surprise statements from the pope when he speaks off the cuff, often on airplane press conferences. His oft-quoted statement about gay priests—“Who am I to judge?”—occurred on a flight back to Italy from Brazil.

Most recently in Tblisi, Georgia, the pope referred to the “theory of gender” as a “great enemy to marriage today.” He added that “there is a global war to destroy marriage,” and that the weapons being used are a form of “idealogical colonization.” In the past, Francis has used that phrase to describe Western ideas being forced onto developing nations. While this has typically been a reference to capitalism, he’s also gotten into the habit of using it as a description of same-sex marriage and gender fluidity. He’s also used the phrase in the Phillipines, Poland and Mexico. He seems to have picked it up from the African bishops, who used it to describe foreign aid that comes bound up with conditions about reproductive rights and sexual health.

But after dropping the phrase in Georgia, Pope Francis told a different story on the papal plane back to Rome. Josh McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter asked Francis what he would say to someone who “has struggled with their sexuality for years and feels that there is truly a problem of biology, that his aspect doesn’t correspond to what he or she feels is their sexual identity.” Francis replied that “Jesus surely doesn’t tell [people] to ‘go away because you are homosexual,’” and he elaborated on this point with a story of a trans Spanish man who had written the pope about his transition and how a neighborhood priest told him to “go to hell.”

The pope said that stories like this must be taken case by case. “In every case,” he said, “I accept it, I accompany it, I study it, I discern it, and I integrate it. This,” he added, “is what Jesus would do today!”

 But would we rather have a pope who is at the very least trying to sustain a conversation—however much he lurches and dodges and equivocates—or one who describes LGBTQ people as victims of “an intrinsic moral evil”?

But then Francis clarified further. “Please don’t say the pope sanctifies transgenders [sic].” He described trans people’s struggle as a “moral problem,” and added that “it’s a human problem, and it must be resolved always can be with the mercy of God.” So it would seem that Pope Francis was trying to have it both ways: condemning the “ideological colonization” of children supposedly being taught they can choose their gender (rather than trying to understand how some people are born feeling trapped in the wrong one), and also putting the emphasis yet again on the Jesuitical notions of dialogue and accompaniment.

In a Facebook Live conversation after the press conference, Fr. James Martin said that gender issues are “a struggle” for the pope. Martin, also a Jesuit, added that “ I think that the main thing that he is recommending and encouraging priests and pastoral workers and everyone who works with the church to do is this accompaniment.” Martin also emphasized how much Francis is trying to speak to a global church. “Imagine reading this [in the Global South] and even parts of Europe where a bishop or a priest may be antipathetic to LGBT people,” where for more conservative clergy, this emphasis on walking with LGBTQ people “is quite a challenge.”

Martin is correct that Francis’ calls for accompaniment are a challenge for priests, even in the sense that a rapidly shrinking number of clergy means most Catholics barely get to know their pastors at all.

But is he evolving on gender issues? That depends on whom you ask: Ruby Almeida of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics acknowledged that the pope is “softening” his language, but that he “reveals a level of  prejudice and a level of misunderstanding of the life experiences of LGBTI persons.” Rev. Rodney McKenzie of the National LGBTQ Task Force added that many people were “deeply hurt by what Pope Francis has said about transgender and gender non-conforming people, which reveals a profound lack of knowledge and empathy.”

Ultimately, this may be a matter of expectations. Those who expected that Francis would evolve into a staunch LGBTQ ally in three years of papacy were probably setting their sights too high. He is still a man marked by decades of theology that don’t recognize gender fluidity, he still struggles to understand feminism and its relationship with LGBTQ rights, and he still has to deal with leading a global church where simply being LGBTQ can get you killed in many countries.

But the “softening” Almeida describes above, and the emphasis on accompaniment Martin points out may be signs of some sort of evolution. Yes, his theology of the body sounds old-fashioned, and yes, he can often seem to be twisting himself into theological knots in order to avoid offending people. But would we rather have a pope who is at the very least trying to sustain a conversation—however much he lurches and dodges and equivocates—or one who describes LGBTQ people as victims of “an intrinsic moral evil”?

Sometimes the choice is that stark for Catholics today. We will either learn to walk with one another, or we will be forced by dogma to condemn one another. That is the choice both we and the pope have to make.