Today marks the one-year anniversary of Pope Francis as head of the Catholic Church, and at least in terms of the volume of extrapolation that has accompanied his few pronouncements, it’s been a great success.
On the basis of a few comments in which he refused to summon hellfire and damnation in talking about gay people, Francis has been declared the LGBT community’s gay Moses, ready to lead us out of the desert of the Vatican policy. That this title has been bestowed upon him by some in the community itself doesn’t make it any less dubious.
Not to diminish the change in tone that Pope Francis represents, but it would be nice to see them backed up with some specific actions. Here are a list of things that the pope could do to prove that he really does want the Church to change its attitude toward LGBT people.
1. Tell Catholic schools to stop picking on gay and lesbian teachers. Catholic schools in the U.S. seem to like nothing better than firing well-respected teachers for getting married or, better still, for listing a partner in a parent’s obituary. The ostensible reason is that being gay violates Church policy, although the policy seems to be enforced only when it comes to gay and lesbian teachers. (When was the last time you heard about a teacher getting canned for using contraceptives?) As a practice, it not only guarantees bad press, but it drives a wedge between young people and the Church, who can’t understand why good people should be punished for no good reason.
2. Let priests know that “Who am I to judge?” isn’t just for the pope. One of the most offensive practices that flourished under Pope Francis’s predecessors was when priests took it upon themselves to determine who is a good Catholic because they knew better than God. Usually, this has been applied to politicians who support abortion rights, but, of course, it included gay and lesbian people too. One especially shameful incident recently occurred in which a priest called a woman who had been a leader in her parish for 12 years to tell her he would not give her Communion at her mother’s funeral. With pastoral skills like that, the priest should consider a career that never requires him to have contact with people again.
3. Come out in favor of nondiscrimination laws. Out of all the LGBT issues around, nondiscrimination protections should be a no-brainer. (Even some Republicans favor them!) Instead, the hierarchy insists that bills that would prohibit people for being fired from their jobs are actually worse than someone getting fired. That’s a warped perspective, to say the least. Saying that people should be judged solely on their merits is hardly a radical concept, and it doesn’t imply that the pontiff will next be donning lavender vestments to hold a mass gay wedding in St. Peter’s Square. What it does say is that human dignity demands that workers be treated fairly, which is a core concept of Catholic teaching, even if it has always made an exception for gay workers (see item 1).
4. Reprimand the bishops in Nigeria. Nigeria’s Catholic bishops have been vocal supporters of the country’s brutal laws against homosexuality. These laws have led to the arrests of dozens of people in the country, who are frequently beaten and threatened with death. That the Church would ally itself with such repression is a scandal that the pope should quickly put an end to with a few well-placed, public words.
5. End the rhetoric equating pedophilia and gayness. In an effort to direct attention away from its own horrendous complicity in the sexual abuse of children, the Vatican has consciously linked pedophilia and gayness. That this connection flies in the face of all science and in fact was debunked by the Vatican’s own study hasn’t stopped the Church and some of its lesser stooges from insisting that gay priests were the cause of the scandal. The pope could stop that nonsense once and for all, while also acknowledging the compound damage the Church’s cover up caused to all the victims.
Now, none of these suggestions is particularly radical. They don’t challenge Church teaching on the nature of homosexuality or its opposition to marriage equality. All they do is acknowledge that LGBT people should be treated with respect, an idea that is clearly in keeping with the pope’s pastoral approach.
But there are two questions. Can Pope Francis afford to take even these modest steps? He may be the head man, but the Church is a vast institution infested with priests, bishops and cardinals who are far less willing to live and let live than Francis seems to be. The resistance to even small change may be too massive for the pope to break. For example, the Church is already seeing the same kind of fault lines emerging between the developed nations and the Third World that have riven the Episcopal Church. Taking on these issues could cause a rupture Francis may want to avoid.
More to the point, does Francis really want the Church to change? In tone, he clearly does, but maybe not in policy, even in modest ways. He may be perfectly happy with the way things are. After all, he just promoted a bishop who calls homosexuality a “defect.” Sometimes the pope sends a mixed message. Some liberals celebrated when Francis demoted arch-conservative Cardinal Burke,but neglected to recognize that at the same time he promoted Cardinal Wuerl, who has been a leader in the Church’s antigay crusade in the U.S.
That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of moderation.
But then again, we don’t know how moderate the pope really is. What just have a few statements that the press have picked over endlessly. Whether the pope will back them up with action remains to be seen.