Pope Francis has certainly made a lot of the right noises when it comes to LGBT issues, most famously his “Who am I to judge?” pronouncement. But the words have fallen far short of actual policy changes. Until now.
In an interview that probably had the American bishops heading for their fainting couches, the pope suggested that the Church might actually be okay with civil unions.
“Matrimony is between a man and a woman,” the pope began, stating Church policy. However, he added that “diverse situations of cohabitation (are) driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care.” Asked if that meant the Vatican understood the phenomenon, the pope replied, “It is necessary to look at the diverse cases and evaluate them in their variety.”
The pope’s comments are intentionally indirect, couched in language that is best understood by lawyers and theologians. But what Francis is saying, in essence, is that understands people in relationships have economic and medical reasons to seek legal recognition for their relationship. What he pointedly didn’t say was that because those relationships fall short of the Vatican’s ideal, they shouldn’t get any legal recognition.
Now, it’s not exactly as if the pope just donned rainbow vestments and offered to preside over weddings at the Rome pride parade. Still, his language is a noticeable shift not just in tone (as was the case in the past) but in actual policy. By suggesting that the Church should look “with much mercy” upon its flock, Francis is moving the Vatican away from the hardline principles of his predecessors designed to punish to a more pragmatic approach designed to accommodate.
This isn’t the only recent sign that the Vatican may be softening its antigay stand. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican condemned Uganda’s antigay laws, saying that “homosexuals are not criminals” and shouldn’t be sentenced for up to life in prison. In most corners, this would be met with a “duh,” but in the Vatican this is actually bold.
One more hint that change might be afoot: the Jesuit magazine America recently ran an editorial echoing Turkson’s condemnation. Perhaps more interesting, the magazine also ran a cover story that concluded that Pope Francis does seem to be shifting the Church’s stance on LGBT issues, though not its doctrines, with a greater emphasis on dealing with people where they are instead of judging them in advance.
Why does the opinion of one magazine matter? Well, America is the first English-language magazine to get an interview with the pope. What’s much more significant, however, is that the magazine is produced by Jesuits, which happens to be the same order to which Francis belongs. That’s the intellectual tradition that the pope is steeped in, and so the magazine’s reasoning would be one that the pope inherently understands.
Whether the magazine is right remains to be seen. Even if it is, there will be plenty of Vatican policy and attitude to find objectionable. But it speaks volumes about the sorry state of the Catholic Church right now that looking upon gay and lesbian people as people would be such a leap forward.