John M. Becker

Pope Francis on the 'Right Side of History'? Not So Fast

Filed By John M. Becker | July 31, 2013 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: bad reporting, Catholic Church, Catholicism, Chad Griffin, Freedom to Marry, gay marriage, Human Rights Campaign, marriage discrimination, marriage equality, misreporting, Pope Francis, Salvatore Cordileone, same-sex marriage, Timothy Dolan

francis.jpgIn case you missed it, last Sunday a reporter asked Pope Francis about an alleged "gay lobby" operating within Vatican City, and how the hierarchy should respond to priests who are gay but celibate.

The pontiff's answer contained some surprisingly nice words. "Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord? You can't marginalize these people," he said.

And the media went freaking nuts. "Pope Francis calls for inclusion of gays in society, saying he has no right to 'judge'," a headline on the Washington Post's website read. "Pope Francis On Gays: Who Am I To Judge Them?" trumpeted the Huffington Post, CBS, and CNN.

Many pundits and commentators were practically tripping over themselves to fawn over Francis, including prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan, who called the pope's words "revolutionary," and Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit scholar and author, who said the comments represented a "sea change" in Catholicism.

But such uncritical praise misrepresents the context and scope of Francis's remarks, whitewashes the pope's history of disturbing anti-gay rhetoric, and creates the false impression that Francis's words signal a substantive change in the anti-gay teachings of the Catholic Church. I'll sort through the hyperbole -- and explain how a major LGBT org dropped the ball on this story -- after the jump.

Before going any further, let's examine what the Catholic Church actually teaches about homosexuality. To do so, we'll turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the doctrinal manual of Catholicism that contains all of that religion's core beliefs:

"Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, 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.

"The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

"Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection."

catechism.jpgThe Church's teaching on homosexuality was further clarified in a 1986 pastoral letter approved by Pope John Paul II and written by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI). The document, called On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons and also known as Homosexualitatis problema, infamously characterized same-sex sexual acts as "evil":

Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.

Therefore special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.

Pope Francis himself also has a disturbing history of ugly anti-gay rhetoric. For example, when his native country of Argentina debated legalizing marriage for same-sex couples, Francis -- then Cardinal Jose Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires -- came out swinging. He said marriage equality was a tool of Satan (the "Father of Lies") and a "scheme to destroy God's plan." He also implied that loving, committed same-sex marriages like mine are somehow evolutionarily inferior to opposite-sex marriages, calling them "a real and dire anthropological throwback." And Bergoglio claimed that allowing same-sex couples to adopt is a form of discrimination against children.

So basically, this is the message from the Catholic Church and its pope to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people: you're intrinsically disordered, the sexual expression of your love is evil, your loving marriages are Neolithic tools of Satan, and your families harm children. But we love you! (Note to Francis, et al. -- if that's your definition of "love," you can keep it.)

Did Pope Francis's nice words last Sunday change any of that? No. Consider the remarks in context: Francis was answering a question about gay priests -- who take the same vow to abstain from sex that straight priests do -- not a broader question about LGBT people in general. His compassionate-sounding comments had absolutely nothing to do with the vast majority of LGBT people who are not celibate and instead seek to live happy, fulfilling adult lives with healthy, normal adult sexualities, and he did not recant or apologize for his previous comments about gay people being in cahoots with the Devil.

No new ground was broken in the Pope's remarks (except that he actually used the word "gay!" Whoop-di-doo!). Francis meticulously toed the line and upheld the official Catholic opposition to homosexuality; this was confirmed when Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco -- two of the American Catholic Church's most outspoken homophobes -- both released statements praising Francis's remarks and clarifying their limited scope.

The pontiff's comments were at most a change of style, not of substance. But this was almost universally glossed over by the media in its rush to force-fit this story into the broader narrative of a major societal shift in favor of LGBT acceptance.

The response to Pope Francis's remarks from the LGBT community was decidedly mixed. Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, grasped the nuanced nature of the Pope's words, acknowledging that they reflected a shift in tone but pointing out that on a doctrinal level, the Catholic Church remains an officially anti-gay institution:

" long as millions of LGBT Catholic individuals, couples and youth alike are told in churches big and small that their lives and their families are disordered and sinful because of how they are born--how God made them--then the Church is sending a deeply harmful message. One's sexuality is an immutable characteristic, and every leading medical and mental health organization has declared that attempts to change or suppress that fact are profoundly damaging. It's time to send positive and affirming messages to all people, because the Bible is clear. All people have dignity in themselves and in their love for one another. It's time for Church teaching to reflect that simple fact."

Contrast Griffin's response with this stunningly misleading meme that Freedom to Marry pushed out over Facebook and Twitter, boldly proclaiming Pope Francis to be on the "right side of history":


As of this writing, the above meme has been shared more than 77,000 times on Facebook. To Freedom to Marry's credit, their blog post is significantly more measured in its praise for Francis, but really, who clicks through on those memes anyway? Most people just like and share -- and in this case, spread false information in the process.

Remember, we're talking about a man who has maliciously slandered and mischaracterized the loving marriages and families of same-sex couples, and who heads an institution that's made stopping the expansion of LGBT rights (including marriage equality) a top priority not just in the United States but around the world -- but he says a few nice-sounding platitudes about celibate gay priests and all of a sudden, according to Freedom to Marry, he's on the "right side of history?"

rainbow_catholic.jpgNo. Absolutely not. The nation's largest marriage equality organization should have known better than to reinforce a false narrative by holding Pope Francis up as some kind of beacon of progress on LGBT rights. Once he apologizes for calling our marriages demonic and his church ends its global crusade against our community, then we can talk about him being closer to the "right side of history."

As an LGBT person and a marriage equality activist, I'm disappointed in Freedom to Marry's seemingly thoughtless praise for an anti-gay religious leader. As a journalist and blogger, I'm disappointed in the media's gross misreporting of Pope Francis's remarks. And as a former Catholic who still cares deeply about that church and its members, I'm disappointed that the supposedly progressive Pope Francis chose to stick with the Catholic Church's harmful homophobia instead of moving forward into a more radically inclusive future.

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