Francis In-Flight: Second Coming or Papal Bull?

After Pope Francis suggested a new tone for the LGBT community, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, New York’s archbishop, made the rounds of the media to discount any practical significance to his boss’ statements. | L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO/ VATICAN.VA

After Pope Francis suggested a new tone for the LGBT community, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, New York’s archbishop, made the rounds of the media to discount any practical significance to his boss’ statements. | L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO/ VATICAN.VA

Pope Francis hit the beach in Rio late last month, telling millions of the faithful to get the Church “closer to the people” and “get rid of clericalism.”

“Don’t forget,” he concluded. “Make trouble.”

On his flight back from Brazil, Francis made some trouble of his own during an unprecedented 80-minute give and take with journalists, addressing gay issues multiple times, including saying of gay priests, “If a person is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him?”

Francis told reporters, “The catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says they [gay people] should not be marginalized because of this [orientation] but that they should be integrated into society. The problem is not having this orientation. We must be brothers.”

The pope signals a new tone on homosexuality, but has anything of substance changed?

In tone, it was a notable departure from the anti-gay pronouncements of his predecessors, especially Benedict XVI, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1986 moved the Church further to the right on homosexuality by declaring it “intrinsically disordered” and, astonishingly, blaming anti-gay violence on those who push for protections “to which no one has any conceivable right.”

To be sure, in the same press conference, the pope reiterated Church condemnations of gay sexuality and women’s ordination. Still, he sent some long-time critics of the Church into heights of praise even as others are cautioning that on substance, nothing has changed.

On CNN, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an out lesbian and a Catholic, said Francis “deserves so much credit for making those statements. There’s more we want — changes we want in the Church. It’s not everything. But that is a step forward.”

Mark Segal, the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News whose activism goes back to the early 1970s, said, “Pope Francis may be the savior of the Roman Catholic Church.” In a breathless column, he called Francis “a breath of fresh air” and said his “startling announcement so startled that it may end the truly ugly and hateful battle the Church has waged against the LGBT community.”

If that’s true, the message came too late for Ken Bencomo, a beloved teacher at St. Lucy’s Priory, a Catholic high school in Glendora, California for 17 years — and out as gay for 10 — who was fired earlier in July after pictures of him and his husband at their wedding appeared in the local paper. School authorities called the news a “public display of behavior contrary to Church teaching.”

In fact, what school administrations did was perfectly in line with Francis’ much-heralded Pronouncements on the Plane. Asked in flight if the Church would change its opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage, he said, “You know perfectly the position of the Church.”

In response to a question about a report leaked months ago of a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, Francis — apparently trying to be humorous — said, “The problem is lobbying for this orientation or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worse problem.” Continuing in a tone simultaneously light-hearted and dismissive, he added, “You see a lot written about the gay lobby. I still have not seen anyone in the Vatican with an identity card saying that they are gay.”

Despite polls of American Catholics, for example, that show strong support for gay marriage and women’s ordination, Francis ain’t budging. On women’s ordination, he told the papal press, “The door is closed.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, the LGBT Catholic group, said in a statement that the pope’s comments on gay issues “represent a very welcome change in tone from what we’ve heard from the last two popes. For gay people to hear a pope speak of us as people of faith and goodwill who should not be marginalized in society, rather than as threats to civilization, is a great shift. The overwhelming response to these statements has shown just how hungry lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Catholics are for any kind of pastoral care from Church officials, and how much damage has been done to our community over the past two and a half decades.”

Duddy-Burke said she hoped “Francis’ tone will be echoed by bishops and cardinals around the globe,” but New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan quickly dashed any such expectations. The head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dolan, asked by Charlie Rose on CBS what it would take “to change its attitude about homosexuality being a sin,” said, “That’s probably not possible.” He quickly clarified by saying, “Homosexuality is not a sin. Homosexual acts are. Just like heterosexuality is not a sin, although heterosexual acts outside of marriage — life-loving, life-giving faith between a man and a woman — that would be sinful.”

Heterosexuals, of course, can marry, while the Church is one of the most vigorous opponents of same-sex marriage worldwide, including in Argentina where Francis, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, vigorously opposed it — though late in the debate he unsuccessfully urged his fellow bishops to support civil unions to forestall full marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Just last month, the US bishops issued an attack on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in a letter to the Senate Committee weighing the issue. Francis may say he’s in no position to judge, but apparently employers across the nation are free to do so with discriminatory intent in the Church’s thinking.

The seeming contradiction between Francis’ “tone” and these facts puts Dignity in a tough spot. Duddy-Burke said of Francis, “Perhaps this will be an opening that encourages more Church officials to enter into the kind of transformative dialogue that has propelled the Church forward.”

At the same time, she acknowledged that Dolan has not responded to her group’s repeated requests to open up a dialogue.

“I was very struck by Cardinal Dolan’s immediate round of the morning news shows, doing his best to say that what the pope said was insignificant, and the number of US bishops issuing statements saying the pope was just rearticulating existing teaching,” Duddy-Burke told Gay City News. “To me, that was a clear attempt to deflect attention from the people who found the pope’s word choices and approach to be ‘revolutionary,’ ‘ground-breaking,’ and a source of great hope.”

Father Bernárd Lynch, an out gay priest and author who has worked in the Dignity movement since the 1970s, argued that what Francis said was “the least offensive statement that’s come out of the Vatican in recent history. The Vatican didn’t recognize ‘gayness.’”

Lynch noted, “The official teaching of the Magisterium is that we are disordered and that’s still true — sexuality expressed is bad.” What Francis really needs to do, he said, is “apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church for the terrible hurt, harm, and damage done to LGBT people — spiritually and psycho-sexually over the years.”

The Church, Lynch said, can’t change “until they believe we are equals and our sexuality is on a par with heterosexuals.” And, he said, “Until the church treats its women as equals, it will never treat gay people as equals.”

UK gay rights activist Peter Tatchell called Francis “a master of PR and spin. Perhaps this announcement is just an attempt to repair the Vatican’s negative, homophobic image, which has brought it into disrepute and contributed to large numbers of Catholics deserting the Church.”

Tatchell added, “The pope’s pronouncements will be pretty meaningless unless it is followed up by the Vatican dropping its opposition to LGBT equal rights and loving same-sex relationships.”

Still, Tatchell admitted, “The change in tone is welcome. It puts the hard-line Church homophobes on the back foot, which is a good thing.”

Lynch, who attended Dignity’s national convention in Minneapolis in early July, pointed out that the group has created a community of faith despite the lack of affirmation by the Church hierarchy.

“There was no mention of Pope Francis or Vatican teaching,” he wrote in an email. “Dignity it seems to me has found its own way as Roman Catholic and LGBTQ people of God. ‘We Are Church’ seemed to echo in everything the leadership and participants said and did. Nonetheless, as LGBTQ Catholics, we are and insist in being in union with Rome as long and as much as Rome is in union with us — our struggle for equality and justice and our unquestioning devotion and dedication to Jesus Christ and his Gospel of Love for all. Christ is our First Love. When Rome echoes him, as it would seem Pope Francis is sincerely trying to do — WE ARE ALL ON BOARD.”