How an Unexpected Aspect of “The Francis Effect” May Further LGBTQ Equality

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Much has been written about how the “Francis Effect” could indicate that the Catholic Church may be on its way to becoming a more affirming, or at least accepting, place for LGBTQI people. Most often cited are the Papal Plane comments, Francis’ question “Who am I to judge?” (July 2014) and his more recent comment that the Church should “apologize to the gay person whom it has offended” (June 26, 2016). However, I believe the most promising message for LGBTQ people (and for others marginalized by Catholic teaching and practice) may lie in another of the Pope’s provocative statements, and the fallout that is occurring a year and a half later.

In a December 2014 interview with the Argentine newpaper La Nacion, Francis addressed the issue of divergent opinions surfacing among Church leaders. Discussing the first phase of the Synod on the Family, the Pope said, “Resistance is now evident. And that is a good sign for me, getting the resistance out into the open, no stealthy mumbling when there is disagreement. It’s healthy to get things out into the open, it’s very healthy.”

Francis went on to say that it is entirely natural to have such disagreements in the Church. “Resistance means different points of view, not something dirty,” he said. “It is connected to some decisions I may occasionally take, I will concede that. ... I am not worried. It all seems normal to me. If there were no difference of opinions, that wouldn’t be normal.”

This acceptance, even encouragement, of the expression of divergent opinions represents a dramatic shift in tone from a pontiff, especially following the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. During these Pontificates, those who questioned official teachings or Papal opinions frequently faced harsh sanctions. National bishops’ conferences also discouraged dissent, so for decades we have seen nearly complete conformity among Church leaders on most issues, and certainly no support for affirming LGBTQ people, acknowledging same-sex relationships, or supporting those who identify with gender different from that assigned at birth.

In recent months, a number of Catholic bishops have spoken out in ways that demonstrate that a wide divergence of opinion exists among Church officials on these issues, among others. While the two-phase Synod on the Family did not lead to any significant shift in policy or practice on LGBTQ people, interim reports on the process, especially during the first session, clearly indicated that some participants pushed for a more positive stance. Although the language did not survive to the final report, a mid-term report stated “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” and, “without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.” This was evidence that a vocal and persuasive group of advocates for changing the Church’s view LGBTQ people had an impact on the assembly.

In December 2015, Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny suggested that the Church should develop “formal recognition” for same-sex relationships in which “exclusivity, loyalty, and care are central to each other.”

Here in the US, the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando put the divergence of Catholic leaders’ opinions on the front burner. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and most diocesan statements, addressed issues of violence, gun safety, and terrorism, but most refused to acknowledge that the LGBTQ community had been targeted. However, a handful of them issued statements that specifically offered condolences and solace to the LGBTQ community. St. Petersburg, FL Bishop Robert Lynch went even farther, reflecting, “sadly it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people. Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence.” This statement, applauded by LGBTQ people and many others, brought a swift rebuke from Miami Archbishop (and Lynch’s metropolitan), saying that Lynch “should have known better” and implying he made “truth another casualty in the aftermath of this lone-wolf terrorist attack.”

In early July, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia announced that he was banning those in same-sex partnerships from receiving Communion, as well as from serving as parish council members, lectors or Eucharistic ministers. That same week, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy participated in a memorial for the Orlando victims sponsored by LGBT and Latino/a groups.

After nearly 30 years during which agreement with official Church teaching seemed monolithic among Catholic leadership, having these differences of opinion out in the open is a very hopeful sign. Now we can acknowledge that, just as there is diversity among lay Catholics in views of LGBTQ people, the same is true of those responsible for developing and implementing Church policy. While those willing to question current teaching and practice still represent a minority of Church leaders, their voices are being heard, and it is likely that others may join them in the months ahead. This could help shift the focus from the utterings of Pope Francis to a recognition that there is a community of leaders responsible for Catholic teaching and policy. And as more and more Catholics, grassroots and leadership alike, stand up for the civil and ecclesial rights of LGBTQ people and families, the cultural and political identity of Catholicism as firmly opposing gay and transgender rights will quickly crumble, further weakening efforts to maintain oppressive structures.

Pope Francis’ encouragement of honest dialogue about differences of opinion may well have more impact on the LGBTQ community, public policy, and global culture than anything else he has said or done to date. This could be an unintended, but very welcome, outcome of the “Francis effect.”

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