Pope Francis has struck a more welcoming tone, but the church still needs tangible institutionalized reform.
A growing number of Americans now broadly support equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people. It’s tempting to view this as inevitable, but less than a decade ago many Democrats, including Barack Obama, didn’t even publicly support same-sex marriage.
The speed at which L.G.B.T. rights became a mainstream issue, including for many religious denominations, represents nothing less than a dizzying cultural transformation. What does this revolution mean for the Catholic Church, an ancient institution that thinks in centuries, and holds a view of human sexuality at odds with the shifting cultural winds?
Well, last month, the Vatican used “L.G.B.T.” for what is believed to be the first time ever in a document prepared for a major gathering of bishops and young people in October. “Some L.G.B.T. youth,” it reads, want to “benefit from greater closeness and experience greater care from the church.” The document also acknowledges that many young Catholics disagree with the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage. Not exactly breaking news, you might argue.
But adopting “L.G.B.T.” is emblematic of an emerging shift in the church’s posture toward gay, lesbian and transgender people. Catholic teaching documents have typically used “homosexual” or referred to those with “homosexual tendencies,” which reduce a person’s multidimensional humanity to the mechanics of sex. Using the L.G.B.T. descriptor, often preferred by many gay, lesbian and transgender people, is a sign of respect.
Pope Francis has opened space for a deeper, more authentic conversation about how the church can keep one foot planted in Catholic tradition without being afraid to step into the lived experiences of others. When Pope Francis gave the most famous papal sound bite in history five years ago — “Who am I to judge?” — even his colloquial use of the word “gay” caused a stir in traditional Catholic circles. While the pope has strongly defended church teaching on marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, he prioritizes listening and personal encounter over fingerwagging denunciations. He’s met with transgender people, and when he spoke privately last month with a Chilean clergy sexual abuse survivor, the pope told him that God made him gay and loved him.
There are other signs of progress. The prominent Jesuit priest and author Rev. James Martin, who has been banned from speaking at some Catholic institutions in the United States simply for encouraging the church to build bridges with L.G.B.T. people, was recently invited to give a keynote address at the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families in Dublin later this summer. At the last gathering in Philadelphia three years ago, the only discussion about L.G.B.T. issues came from celibate gay Catholics who spoke about chastity.
The pope’s emphasis on encounter and engagement is trickling down to influence other church leaders. Cardinal Joe Tobin of Newark welcomed a pilgrimage of L.G.B.T. Catholics to the city’s cathedral last spring. In this month’s issue of U.S. Catholic magazine, a deacon in the diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., wrote movingly about his transgender daughter, and challenged the church’s notion of “gender ideology,” a term that has been used to discredit the push for transgender rights. Despite this progress, the Catholic Church must do far more not only to acknowledge the humanity of L.G.B.T. people, but also to recognize most want the same committed, loving relationships as straight couples.
After the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago called for “real, not rhetorical” respect for gays and lesbians. The court decision, which he opposed, still offered an opportunity for “mature and serene reflections,” the cardinal wrote. Catholic leaders in the United States should consider studying a proposal made by Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, the vice president of the German bishops’ conference, who has encouraged a thoughtful discussion on whether Catholic clergymen might offer a type of blessing for Catholics in same-sex relationships. “Although ‘marriage for all’ differs clearly from the church’s concept of marriage, it’s now political reality,” the bishop said. “We have to ask ourselves how we’re encountering those who form such relationships, and are also involved in the church, how we’re accompanying them pastorally and liturgically.”
The church’s own language toward L.G.B.T. people is a stumbling block to its professed commitment to human dignity. While the Catholic catechism, which details church teaching, forbids any violence or “unjust discrimination” toward people who are gay or lesbian, it also describes sexual intimacy between them as “intrinsically disordered.” Before he became pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in 1986 that homosexuality represents a “strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” Many L.G.B.T. Catholics are also forced to live in what the Rev. Bryan Massingale, a Fordham University theologian, calls “the open closet.” This is particularly true at Catholic schools, where in recent years more than 70 L.G.B.T. church employees and Catholic schoolteachers have been fired or lost their jobs in employment disputes. L.G.B.T. Catholic employees have their lives subjected to moral scrutiny in ways heterosexual Catholics never do. Straight Catholics are not fired for using contraception, for example, or having sex before marriage.
Five years into the Francis papacy, a pope who emphasizes mercy and strikes a more welcoming tone toward L.G.B.T. people is helping to rescue the church from a culture-war Christianity that drives people away. But until the Catholic hierarchy can find more tangible ways to institutionalize a commitment to the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people, the exodus of Catholics will continue.
Surveys show most Catholics support same-sex marriage, and the church’s opposition to L.G.B.T. rights drives young people away. If the first step toward change is listening, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., had it right when he addressed a national gathering of L.G.B.T. Catholics last year. “In a church that has not always valued or welcomed your presence, we need to hear your voices and take seriously your experiences,” he said. It’s time to make sure that is more than just an applause line.
John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.”
This article first appeared in the New York Times International Edition.