Pope Francis’ ‘new tone’ on LGBTQ issues that wasn’t

It’s time to stop pretending he’s going to change the Church on this issue.

CREDIT: Stefano Rellandini/AP Pool
CREDIT: Stefano Rellandini/AP Pool

Back in 2013 a newly elected Pope Francis made headlines by responding to a question about gay priests with the quip “Who am I to judge?” Five simple words, uttered by a new pope, triggered an avalanche of coverage predicated on one hopeful question: was the the new pontiff—unlike previous popes who railed against same-sex marriage—striking a new, more inclusive “tone” towards LGBTQ people?

In the years since, the more optimistic answer was bolstered by a steady trickle of LGBTQ-friendly gestures from the Holy Father. Francis was initially dismissive of debates over same-sex marriage, saying the church was too “obsessed” with the subject. He reportedly met with a Spanish transgender man, dined with LGBTQ prisoners, and embraced a gay couple in Washington, D.C. He reiterated the Catholic Catechism’s call that gay people should not be discriminated against, kept an LGBTQ-affirming paragraph in the official record of a synod meeting even though those present voted it down, and even made comments that appeared to entertain potential support for civil unions.

But even as Francis appeared to change the way Catholics talked about homosexuality, a counter narrative emerged.

But even as Francis appeared to change the way Catholics talked about homosexuality, a counter narrative emerged. He introduced the aforementioned synod by referring to same-sex marriage as a “passing fad.” Since he became pope, several American Catholic institutions have fired employees simply for being publicly gay. And when bishops unveiled their assessment on family issues in April, it included the line “no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for mar­riage and family.” By the time Francis offered his “apology” to marginalized gay Catholics in June of this year, the once-optimistic leaders of Christian LGBTQ advocacy groups were already expressing skepticism of his supposedly conciliatory stance.

It all culminated this week when the Vatican released a new document that appeared to directly contradict those five words that initially gave LGBTQ Catholics so much hope: it declared that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” or who “support the so-called ‘gay culture’” cannot be priests.

Francis didn’t personally write the report, but it was a Vatican document all the same. Apparently, the Catholic Church—with Francis at the helm—would, in fact, continue to judge.

From the perspective of many LGBTQ people, Francis’ much-lauded new “tone” on LGBTQ issues — well intentioned or otherwise — is shaping up to be at best a series of empty gestures, at worst an outright farce.

The backlash among LGBTQ equality activists was swift, with DignityUSA executive director Marianne Duddy-Burke declaring “This document is extremely disappointing in its approach to gay men called to be priests.” But embedded within her comments was a sobering realization: from the perspective of many LGBTQ people, Francis’ much-lauded new “tone” on LGBTQ issues — well intentioned or otherwise — is shaping up to be at best a series of empty gestures, at worst an outright farce.

This more pessimistic outlook isn’t exactly new. Catholic scholars and journalists have been saying as much for some time, penning any number of corrections to media articles they say overstate the potential impact of Francis’ subtle rhetorical shift. Moreover, even if Francis wanted to radically alter the Church teaching on LGBTQ issues (the Catechism currently refers to “homosexual tendencies” as “objectively disordered”), doing so is actually far more difficult than simply declaring it as such. Even the pope has limits.

But the fact remains that if Francis wants to alter the way the Church sees LGBTQ people—outside of asking people not to oppress them—he has not publicly indicated any formal plans to do so.

The work of queer Catholic activists is far from over.

Francis’ lack of leadership on the issue is no doubt frustrating for many American Catholics, a strong majority of whom support same-sex marriage. But while he may disenchant many left-leaning U.S. faithful (who tend to be more progressive than the average American anyway), perhaps it should not be a moment to despair. On the contrary, Francis’ lack of action may ultimately spark a renewed queer liberation movement within the Church, and inadvertently heighten the voices of several gay priests who have come out to their parishes in recent years. The work of queer Catholic activists is far from over.

This also isn’t to say that Francis is the kind of traditional crusader against the cause of LGBTQ rights his predecessors have been—he isn’t. If anything, he seems largely disinterested in the whole conversation, especially when compared to Pope Benedict. He has elevated bishops like Blase Cupich who, like him, are far more moderate on the issue (setting in motion potential long-term change), and he’s far more likely to make headlines for railing against economic systems that hurt the poor, speak up for the plight of immigrants, and call for action on climate change than defame LGBTQ relationships. Heck, maybe Pope Francis will surprise us all and pivot to a major push for LGBTQ rights in the next few years.

But for now, if equality-minded Catholics were hoping Francis would be a liberating force for LGBTQ people, it may be time to switch tactics.