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The Pope’s Baby Step on Gays

4 minute read
Gene Robinson

First, the good news. Pope Francis is already showing himself to be a winsome, endearing and inspiring successor to St. Peter. His trip to Brazil catapulted him to rock-star status, with his care for the poor and the dispossessed, his willingness to engage the throngs with little regard for his security and even with his crowd-pleasing offer of a song on the guitar. This is no formal and aloof bishop but rather a man of and for the people. Justice is on his mind and his lips.

But it was a question he was asked on the flight back to Rome, about homosexuality, that has come to define the trip and has sparked hope that the Roman Catholic Church might be softening its stance on being gay. (Even using the word gay, which Francis did in English while otherwise speaking Italian, is unprecedented for a Pope.)

Is there anything new in what he had to say? Well, yes, in terms of tone. And this is no small thing. Francis’ immediate predecessors called homosexuality an “intrinsic moral evil” and branded homosexuals as “intrinsically disordered.” Instead of mirroring those blanket condemnations, Francis offered kindness and compassion. Then, in an act of genuine humility, he asked, “Who am I to judge?” It is telling that this rhetorical question got so much attention, since Jesus, who Christians believe was the perfect revelation of God, warned, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Yet previous Popes have shown no hesitation in being judgmental about homosexuality. This change in tone is significant.

Before we declare a new day for Catholics regarding homosexuality, however, a closer look at the Pope’s statement reveals little change in the church’s stance on being gay. When Francis says gay people should be forgiven their sins like other people, he means that acting on their feelings for someone of the same gender is still a sin that requires forgiveness–a point the Vatican made clear shortly after his remarks.

Francis’ more open tone may mean the most for gay Catholic priests. Rather than calling for them to be expelled from the church, Francis is preaching compassion–so long as they are true to their vows of celibacy. Most encouraging of all is the separation of gay priests from the sexual-abuse scandals of the past. Both Benedict XVI and John Paul II thought they would solve the scandals by ridding the church of gay priests–a wholly unfair linking of homosexuality with pedophilia that has been thoroughly debunked by science. This is enormously positive for gay priests, who have been living under a cloud of suspicion for years.

But what about gay parishioners sitting in the pews of Catholic churches, trying to reconcile their faith with the condemnation of their love as disordered, evil and sinful? Not much has changed, I’m afraid, even with the Pope’s recent remarks. While it may be all right to be gay, it is not all right to act on it, which forces gay Catholics to adopt an involuntary vow of celibacy in order to be in good standing with the church and God.

This distinction without a difference comes from a misleading split between being and doing. Would a loving God create a certain portion of humankind to be affectionally drawn to people of the same gender yet deprive them of ever expressing that love, finding intimacy with and commitment to another person and solemnizing that love in the institution of marriage? That surely would be a cruel God, hardly worthy of praise and devotion.

Yet Francis’ softening in tone is being reflected elsewhere in the Christian church. Mainline denominations are taking an ever more tolerant approach to homosexuality. Conservative evangelicals, especially younger ones, are looking for a way to affirm gay Christians and the love they come to know with other people. Fuller Theological Seminary, the U.S.’s largest evangelical seminary, has a new OneTable group exploring a biblical way forward in how its members can more deeply accept their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters in Christ. Even evangelicals understand that changing their stance on this issue may be key to attracting young people, whether gay or straight, to the church and keeping them.

Pope Francis’ comments may be a baby step toward inclusion–but it is a step that should be greeted with optimism and hope that the church may one day welcome all of God’s children. If God is love, as Scripture attests, then surely God is gay love too.

Robinson is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. He recently retired as the ninth Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire and was the first openly gay bishop elected in the Episcopal Church

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