Pope Francis quickly is establishing himself as the “peoples’ Pope.” He has actively advocated for the poor, downplayed his elevated status, and speaks in colloquial terms that make him seem that much more human. He has left open the possibility that non-Catholics, non-Christians, and even atheists may fall within the vast embrace of a radically loving and merciful God. And now, he’s even made what many consider at least a benign – if not affirming – statement about homosexuality.
Historically, popes have toed an ideological line, asserting that homosexuality is inherently evil, and that all gay people are fundamentally disordered. In an expression of sincere humility, political savvy, or perhaps some combination of both, Francis took a more compassionate position, adding at the end of his comments, "who am I to judge?"
Welcome to the 20th century, Catholic Church. Only one more century to go in order to join the rest of the world in real time.
But seriously, I continue to be impressed and pleased by the direction this pope seems to be taking. And the very fact that he has broken rank with the traditional Catholic teaching about homosexuality is, within his own particular religious culture, nothing short of radical. It lets a glimmer of light into the relatively darkened room of Christian sexual ethics. And if we are to study the Gospels what this might point to, even the faintest glimmer of light can stand up to the deepest darkness.
Perhaps priests will feel that they have a little more space in which to reflect and express who they truly are as embodied, sexual beings, whether they ever act on those inherent identities are attractions. Perhaps families will feel that, when their children come to them with questions about their sexual orientation or gender identity, the teaching of the church urges them to err on the side of love and compassion and to set fearful judgment aside.
But the reality is that the statements made by this pope, however hopeful for those of us who consider ourselves advocates for the LGBT community, this is hardly enough. In fact, if Pope Francis truly is to be known for a legacy of advocacy for the "least of these," he has to take a more proactive stance in affirming and actively guarding the humanity and equal rights of all people, regardless of their orientation or identity.
Ultimately, however, the relationship of dioceses and local congregations to the Vatican has changed dramatically in recent decades. There was a time when every word that passed the Pope’s lips was considered to be an incarnation of the still–speaking inspired word of God. It was practically canon. Today, although every word uttered by Francis is analyzed and dissected, they hardly hold they sway they once did within the greater church body.
Catholics have come to embrace the idea that they can question or even push back against particular church teaching. This was especially evident during the tenure of the previous pope, who tended to rankle many moderate and progressive Catholics with his dogmatic – some might say Byzantine – positions. Pope Francis has created a similar restlessness within the more conservative wing of the Catholic Church, but the power of that position is somewhat diminished, perhaps irrevocably.
This is part of the consequence of coming to the social justice conversation so late in the game. While the movement for equality and inclusion should welcome a diverse chorus of voices from tentative tolerance to heartfelt affirmation, timing is everything. Many Catholics – and the vast majority of Americans – already have a fairly clear sense of where they stand on the issue of LGB T rights.
So while this softening of historic institutional intolerance is yet another hopeful sign that we are taking baby steps toward the kind of restorative justice to which Jesus calls us, it's potency has diminished over the past few decades.
I pray for this pope and for the Catholic Church as a whole, just as I do for my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. My prayer is simple: that all people engaging this issue will find it in their hearts to see past the issue itself to the utter humanity behind the rhetoric and ideology. It is how Jesus set in motion a compassionate revolution, and I expect it is still the only hope we have in continuing that today.