Pope Francis, leader of the 1.2-billion-member Roman Catholic Church, is making headlines again for saying something nice about LGBT people.
In a wide-ranging interview released Thursday, the pontiff said that his church has become "obsessed" with attacking marriage equality, abortion, and contraception, and that it should instead focus on being a "home for all."
When the interviewer brought up the topic of homosexuality, Francis responded thusly (emphasis mine):
We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the Kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are "socially wounded" because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this.
During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro, I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the Catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free. It is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.
You may remember that back in July, the first time Pope Francis said nice things about LGBT people, the media went absolutely nuts. Judging by the headlines I've seen so far, the reaction to this story isn't going to be any different. ("Pope Francis: Church can't 'interfere' with gays," CNN is boldly shouting.)
But just as I wrote last time, framing things this way is misleading at best. In our rush to force-fit this story into the broader narrative of a major societal shift in favor of LGBT acceptance, we miss (and misrepresent) what Pope Francis is actually saying.
Now, don't get me wrong: The remarks made by Pope Francis absolutely do represent a stunning change in tone from his intensely homophobic predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Could you have imagined John Paul II, who issued a pastoral letter calling homosexuality "objectively disordered," making the claim that the Catholic Church does not condemn gays and lesbians? Of course not. And there's no way in hell that Pope Benedict XVI, who explicitly endorsed the anti-LGBT spiritual bullying of the U.S. bishops, would ever suggest that the church should refrain from interfering spiritually in LGBT people's lives.
So there's definitely progress being made on the messaging front. But look again at Pope Francis' words themselves. This one sentence holds the key: "By saying this, I said what the Catechism says."
What Does the Catholic Church Actually Teach About Homosexuality?
Since Pope Francis brought up the Catechism, the doctrinal manual of Catholicism that contains all that religion's core beliefs, let's examine what it says about homosexuality:
Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
So Pope Francis is right: His remarks in no way contradict the Catechism, which calls on Catholics to act with compassion, sensitivity, respect, and hospitality toward people with this (ahem) "condition." But that same Catechism also demands that gays and lesbians remain celibate, refraining from ever entering into meaningful adult sexual relationships because, it claims, the sexual expression of our love for one another is gravely depraved and "intrinsically disordered."
'Endorsing' Our Existence? Gee, Thanks
In the interview the pontiff recounted a conversation he had about homosexuality:
A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: "Tell me: When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?" We must always consider the person.
Here again we have a nice, ostensibly pro-LGBT sound bite. But look at what Francis is actually telling the church to do: "endorse" the existence of LGBT people "with love." Talk about a low bar. Gee, thanks, Padre. I'm so happy that you're on board with the fact that we exist.
But along with existence come certain rights and freedoms, like the freedom to live without fear and discrimination, the freedom to work, and the freedom to marry. Where LGBT people have sought these freedoms for ourselves, here in the U.S. and around the world, the Catholic Church has consistently and unflinchingly opposed us. Call me crazy, but I refuse to drape a pride flag around this pope until he not only affirms our existence but drops his church's crusade against our human rights and basic freedoms in civil society.
It's a PR Move, Silly
As The New York Times notes, the pope expressed concern about the threat that social issues like abortion, contraception, and marriage equality present to the future of the Catholic Church. "We have to find a new balance," Francis said. "Otherwise ... the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."
Indeed, the gap between laity and hierarchy is immense: American Catholics support marriage equality at an even higher rate than the general population, and 98 percent of them use forms of contraception banned by the church.
For its part, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops decided last year to address this gap by launching a massive (and expensive) PR spin campaign to "soften and shape" their battered public image and bring more "sophistication in [their] messaging" around such controversial topics.
Pope Francis' response isn't much different at all. He doesn't appear to believe that his church should modernize its teachings on those issues and drag its sexual mores out of the Stone Age. Instead he says that Catholicism should hold onto homophobia and misogyny, but just be a little quieter about it:
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. ... The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
There you have it, folks. Pope Francis' Catholic Church isn't abandoning its anti-LGBT beliefs; it's just going to talk about them less often and put on a kinder, gentler face whenever it's forced to do so. The pontiff's comments yesterday were a response to the shifting politics around LGBT issues, not a new policy of inclusion for LGBT people. They are, at most, a change of style, not one of substance.
LGBT Catholics, their non-LGBT allies, and the greater LGBT community should really stop breaking out the champagne and balloons for this pope every time he says a few nice-sounding words about gays and lesbians. Believe me, I'm as encouraged by his change in tone as the next person, but after centuries of persecution, the Catholic Church owes its LGBT members a whole lot more than just an acknowledgement of their existence.
The Catholic Church and its leader, Pope Francis, owe LGBT Catholics nothing less than the full affirmation of their human dignity -- in life, in love, in sex, in marriage, and in family.
This post originally appeared on the Bilerico Project.