In the middle of a tumultuous controversy swirling around the Vatican ― in which a conservative, anti-gay archbishop and nemesis of Pope Francis called on him to resign ― the pope made a bizarre and concerning statement, which the Vatican has now attempted to walk back.
On his way back from a trip to Ireland, marred by renewed allegations that the Church hierarchy was guilty of covering up clerical sex abuse, Francis was asked by a reporter what advice he would have for a father whose child came out as gay.
Francis first responded that the father should pray, and went on to say that he shouldn’t shun the child.
“Don’t condemn,” he is reported to have said. “Dialogue. Understand, give the child space so he or she can express themselves.”
That was a good first response, and it’s what American media accounts focused on. But buried or omitted from those accounts ― yet focused on a great deal in European media ― was the pope’s second statement.
As reported by The Guardian, the pope said: “When it shows itself from childhood, there is a lot that can be done through psychiatry, to see how things are. It is something else if it shows itself after 20 years,” and adding that ignoring a child who showed “homosexual tendencies” was an “error of fatherhood or motherhood.”
LGBTQ and human rights groups in Europe condemned the statements.
“He is basically saying that young gay people can be changed, which is archaic and has been refuted numerous times,” said Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International in Ireland.
When the Vatican later published the transcript of the exchange, they erased the reference to psychiatry.
Asked by Agence France Press why the comment had been removed, a Vatican spokeswoman responded: “When the pope referred to ‘psychiatry,’ it is clear that he was doing it to highlight an example of ‘things that can be done.’ But with that word he didn’t mean to say that [homosexuality] was a ‘mental illness.’”
It’s possible that the pope, under attack by anti-LGBTQ forces in the church, was trying to placate them a bit, but then realized he went too far and tried to rein in the statement. Whatever the case, underscoring that homosexuality is not a mental illness was an important first step in trying to explain the pope’s statement.
“The Vatican statement in fact only seems to be doubling down on the idea that homosexuality can and should somehow be suppressed.”
But the clarification itself only further muddles the issue and doesn’t explain what the pope meant by his reference to psychiatry. Does he mean a psychiatrist can help a gay child come to terms with being queer? Why, then, shouldn’t that be the case for someone who comes out 20 years later? In a homophobic world, people may benefit from professional help in coming out no matter what age they are.
By claiming that the pope was highlighting an example of “things that can be done,” the Vatican statement in fact only seems to be doubling down on the idea that homosexuality can and should somehow be suppressed ― even if it is not a “mental illness.”
That actually sums up the Catholic Church’s official position on the issue: Those who are gay may or may not be gay by nature, but they should do whatever they can to not act on their sexual and emotional desires. The Catechism, right there on the Vatican’s website, notes “the psychological genesis” of homosexuality “remains largely unexplained.” But it nonetheless describes “homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity.”
When Francis said a few years back that if someone is gay, “Who am I to judge?” it was not inconsistent with that theology. A person can be struggling with something, trying hard to suppress it and still not be judged ― even if what they’re struggling with is viewed as something destructive. “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” goes back quite far in the church.
Francis had been lauded for that statement but it still didn’t come close to embracing LGBTQ people as normal, natural and healthy.
With this new statement, and with the Vatican trying to walk it back without fully explaining it, it’s clear that Francis and the Catholic Church have been trying to have it both ways. Even giving remote legitimacy to the idea that homosexuality can be controlled in children if discerned early ― which is nothing short of supporting “ex-gay” conversion or reparative therapy ― should be enormously troubling to all.
Michelangelo Signorile is an editor-at-large for HuffPost. Follow him on Twitter at @msignorile.