Talking Softly, Pope Holds Onto Big Sticks

Pope Francis with Pope Emeritus Benedict, who as a top aide to the late Pope John Paul II first articulated the Vatican’s continued position on gay sex –– that it is “intrinsically disordered.” | L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO/ VATICAN.VA

Pope Francis with Pope Emeritus Benedict, who as a top aide to the late Pope John Paul II first articulated the Vatican’s continued position on gay sex –– that it is “intrinsically disordered.” | L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO/ VATICAN.VA

While governors in North Carolina and Mississippi struggle to defend their anti-gay laws, Pope Francis has found a way to hold on to Catholic teachings that condemn LGBT people, exclude women from power, and forbid divorce by taking a softer tone that has won him plaudits from the mainstream media and kept the Church’s almost universally right-wing hierarchy in check for the moment.

Francis’ apostolic letter, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), will never be mistaken for “The Joy of Gay Sex,” but the sub-headline in the New York Times read: “Pope Urges Catholics to Welcome Gays and Single Parents.”

When “LGBT News” on Facebook headlined the story as “Cool Pope Continues Cool Crusade,” veteran gay activist Ron Madson responded, “This is a delusional headline. Talking softly but keeping the same big sticks in place does not change the net effect of those rules. Dead LGBT kids are dead kids. Second class treatment of women is second class treatment. Blocking access to civil equality is still anti-human rights.”

Francis wins good press, but gay sex still “intrinsically disordered,” safe sex “narcissistic”

Of gay people, Francis wrote, “Every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration… As for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

What “positive” language there is gets shrouded in ambiguous Vatican-speak: “The Synod Fathers stated that the Church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage,” Francis wrote.

And while there is an emphasis on priests being more welcoming to all, including those who have divorced and remarried, there is no relief from the dogma that homosexual acts are sinful and marriage — even to an abusive spouse — is indissoluble.

Conservative Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote, “Francis doubtless intends this language as a bridge between the church’s factions, just dogmatic enough for conservatives, but perpetually open to more liberal interpretations. And such deliberate ambiguity does offer a center, of sorts, for a deeply divided church. But not one, I fear, that’s likely to permanently hold.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, the LGBT Catholic group, said on PBS, “I find it to be a very uneven document. There are certainly places where it soars. I love the emphasis on respecting the formed consciences of so many of us and pastoral care, starting from the needs of the person. I think those are fantastic and really consistent with a lot of what Pope Francis has been about. And then there are areas where it really falls short of what I think people were hoping for, and that’s certainly true on the issue of LGBT people, where there really isn’t a lot of progress in this piece.”

Under the guise of counseling that sex is for more than self-gratification, the pope condemns “safe sex,” not acknowledging its role in protecting people from deadly diseases.

“Frequently, sex education deals primarily with ‘protection’ through the practice of ‘safe sex,’” Francis wrote. “Such expressions convey a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against. This way of thinking promotes narcissism and aggressivity in place of acceptance.”

In a multi-year process that led up to this letter, the input of self-accepting LGBT people was not sought or permitted and no woman was allowed to vote with the bishops meeting in a synod on these issues. The bishops were able to hold the line on reforming anti-gay and anti-woman doctrines.

The Roman Catholic catechism continues to say this about gay people: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity [Cf. Gen 19:1-29; Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10], tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

Father Bernárd Lynch, speaking on BBC Radio, said, “‘Joy of Love’ does not add a lot of joy for LGBTQ people. Same-sex unions condemned, adoption by lesbian and gay people is condemned. And there is no compassion whatsoever to the complexity of gender identities. We are still on the outer rims of humanity. We are still regarded as ‘disordered’ in our nature and ‘evil’ in our love.”

UK gay activist Peter Tatchell said in a release, “The Pope promised reform but has reconfirmed traditional Catholic doctrine on same-sex relationships. He has ignored submissions and appeals by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics. Gentler words do not assuage Vatican opposition to gay equality. ‘Joy of Love’ offers a change of tone, not of substance.”

Tatchell also said, “Only ‘unjust’ discrimination is condemned, which implies that some forms of discrimination against LGBT people are justified. All across the world, the Catholic Church is opposing LGBT equality and defending legal discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Indeed, there is not a single instance of the pope or the Vatican intervening when gay people are fired from their jobs in Catholic institutions in the West or subjected to viciously anti-LGBT laws in the developing world — often with the support of local bishops. In fact, the Vatican continues to use its status at the United Nations to try to block any and all progress on issues related to women’s reproductive rights and LGBT rights.

In response to a new report from the Index of Censorship on the pandemic of murders of LGBT people in Honduras, Honduran gay activist Donny Reyes, who has himself been tortured, sexually assaulted, and dodged murder attempts, said that the state, Church, and mainstream media there have driven the “impunity, fundamentalism, machismo, and misogyny across the country, with disastrous consequences for the LGBT community.”

“By thinking that everything is black and white,” the pope wrote, “we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.”

But by not reconsidering his Church’s certainty that homosexuality is evil and women are constitutionally incapable of sharing power in Church governance, Pope Francis remains stuck in black-or-white thinking that continues to do grave damage to society.