Years after he famously responded to a reporter’s question about gay priests with the words, “Who am I to judge?” Pope Francis has made another effort to reach out to LGBTQ people.
On Wednesday, Francis became the first Roman Catholic pontiff to show support for same-sex civil unions, stating in a new documentary that gay and lesbian people are “children of God.”
“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family,” Francis said in an interview shown in the documentary “Francesco,” according to The Associated Press. “You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”
Queer American Catholics seem divided ― some exuberant, others more cautiously hopeful ― about what the pope’s comments could mean for their welcome in a church that still considers queer sex to be “intrinsically” disordered.
This isn’t the first time Francis has endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples. He took the same position in 2010, when he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires. But his support back then reportedly had a catch: He was advocating for civil unions because Argentina was about to legalize same-sex marriage, which he thought was a “destructive” attack on God’s plan. According to The New York Times, Bergoglio thought civil unions could be a compromise that would allow marriage to be reserved for heterosexual couples.
But civil unions don’t offer the same full range of protections that marriage does, and they put same-sex couples and their families in a status that is “less than” opposite-sex couples, Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the LGBTQ Catholic group DignityUSA told HuffPost. If the pope’s words were interpreted in some countries as a way to prevent marriage equality from moving forward, that could undermine the fundamental human rights of LGBTQ people in those countries, Duddy-Burke said.
On the other hand, in countries where queer couples don’t have any rights and are being victimized “both legally and culturally,” the pope’s words could be an important safeguarding measure, she said.
Right now, Duddy-Burke said she is feeling “cautiously optimistic” while waiting to see if the Vatican issues any kind of clarification or denial. As someone who has been a DignityUSA leader for close to 30 years, Duddy-Burke is wary of high hopes.
“LGBTQ people have been so oppressed by the church for so long and have been working for change for so long. We have experienced multiple incidents of something hopeful seeming to be put forward and then pulled back,” she said. “Every time that happens, it leads to despair and bitterness and disappointment for the people for whom that hope was so important.”
There was no indication of a walk-back of the pope’s comments on Wednesday evening. The church’s official news website published an article about the new documentary without mentioning his comments on civil unions. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not return HuffPost’s request for comment.
There was also no sign that the Catholic Church’s long-standing teachings about the “disordered” nature of queer love are changing. The church still prescribes life-long chastity as the best option for lesbian and gay Catholics.
What Francis seems to be trying to do, with the statements in “Francesco” and his previous actions and words, is place more emphasis on Catholic teachings about how LGBTQ individuals should be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
It’s a difference in tone that emerged during the early months of his papacy, when Francis claimed the church had become overly “obsessed” with culture war issues such as abortion and gay marriage, instead of prioritizing serving the poor and marginalized. Since then, Francis has warmly received a gay former student and his partner, and he supported efforts to care for transgender people living in poverty. He has also developed a friendship with a gay Chilean survivor of clerical sexual abuse, Juan Carlos Cruz, who claims Francis told him during a 2018 meeting that God had made Cruz gay.
The documentary “Francesco,” which premiered Wednesday as part of the Rome Film Festival, features a story about Francis encouraging two Italian men in a same-sex relationship to raise their children in the church, according to the Catholic News Agency.
Francis is acting as a good pastor by “meeting people where they are and seeing the good in their situations,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who has tried to build bridges between the church and the LGBTQ community. Bishops who have been preaching against same-sex civil unions will “have to rethink things” after hearing Francis’s statements, he said.
“In places like Poland, where the church is often virulently anti-LGBT; or Uganda, where bishops support the criminalization of homosexuality, this is a huge challenge,” Martin told HuffPost.
For J.R. Zerkowski, a gay Catholic who serves as the LGBT ministry director for the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, this is a moment to be celebrated. The pope’s statement brings to life the church’s teaching to avoid “every sign of unjust discrimination” toward queer people, he said.
“The Catholic Church has always had a history, in Catholic social teaching, of demanding human rights,” Zerkowski told HuffPost. “So it’s inconsistent with being Catholic to try to deny rights to people.”
Zerkowski said he ultimately hopes the church will recognize that LGBTQ people are “entitled to God’s blessings just as anyone else is in the church.” But for now, the pope’s words have given people hope, he said.
As the executive director of Fortunate Families, a Catholic network for parents of LGBTQ people, Zerkowski has traveled around the country trying to help Catholic communities create more inclusive ministries for queer Catholics. The people he’s been in touch with through the network have been “thrilled” by the pope’s affirmation of civil unions, he said.
“Are we in the end zone? Probably not, but we’ve taken another step forward and the ball is in play,” he said.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the Catholic LGBTQ group New Ways Ministry, said that, although he’s grateful for the pope’s support for civil unions, he is also hoping Francis will take the further step of allowing same-sex unions to be blessed within the Catholic Church.
Still, when the pope says something positive about LGBTQ issues, he sends forth an “enormous wave of goodwill” to queer people and teaches a positive lesson to those who hold anti-LGBTQ views for religious reasons, DeBernardo said.
“It is no overstatement to say that with this statement not only has the pope protected LGBTQ couples and families, but he also will save many LGBTQ lives,” DeBernardo said.
UPDATE: Nov. 2 — After the documentary premiered, the Vatican claimed that the pope’s words were taken out of context, and said he was referring to his position in 2010 when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. The interview footage, which actually was filmed in 2019 interview with a Mexican broadcaster, does not represent a shift, the church said.