Pope seeks ‘new balance’ in approach to gays and lesbians

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Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he is driven through St. Peter’s Square in September. -Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

Many Catholics rejoiced over Pope Francis’ remarks that the Roman Catholic Church has become too focused on “small-minded rules” on issues such as homosexuality, abortion and contraception.

Francis, in an interview published in mid-September, said the church’s focus on fighting marriage equality and reproductive freedoms was narrow and driving people away. 

Francis said the church “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.”

He also said, “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 have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

That led Chad Griffin at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group, to boldly assert that the pope had hit the reset button, “rolling back a years-long campaign at the highest levels of the church to oppose any measure of dignity or equality.”

At Dignity, a national group of LGBT Catholics, executive director Marianne Duddy-Burke took heart: “We find much to be hopeful about, particularly in the pope’s firm desire that the church be a ‘home for all people’ and his belief that God looks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people with love rather than condemnation.”

However, the remarks, made during an interview for a Jesuit publication, did not change church doctrine or teachings and they sparked controversy, criticism and questions along with the praise.

“This will not bring me back to the church,” said Jackie Cassidy of Madison, estranged from the Catholic Church since the mid-1990s, when she came out as gay. “It will take a lot more than kind and considerate comments. But I will tell you that my parents and grandparents have agonized over going to Mass. Their faith is deep, but it’s been so hard for them. And I think that any moderation by the pope is a blessing after Benedict.”

Cassidy said the pope’s comments reminded her of her parents’ remarks in the months after she came out two decades ago. “It seems like he’s at stage two in a PFLAG process – acceptance by avoidance,” she said. “But anyone who was ever rejected because of their sexual orientation knows that’s truly progress.”

But what impact might Francis’ views have on church teachings and policies?

“LGBT Catholics and allies will rejoice in the pope’s call for church leaders to focus on being pastors rather than rule enforcers,” said Duddy-Burke, expressing hope that U.S. bishops would “end their anti-LGBT campaigns, the firings of church workers for who they are, the attacks on people who challenge or question official teachings, and the exclusive and judgmental rhetoric that comes too often from our pulpits.”

Griffin said, “At a moment when Pope Francis is re-dedicating the church to tirelessly helping the poor, it’s unacceptable for American bishops to continue wasting millions of parishioner dollars on harmful anti-LGBT political campaigns that target members of their own flock. For the sake of LGBT Catholics, it’s essential that Pope Francis’ inspiring words lead to transformative change throughout the church hierarchy.”

There is hope but also the recognition that Francis was talking about Catholic tenets of mercy and tolerance and not necessarily doctrinal  transformation.

And there was no indication that the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, which for years has led well-funded efforts at the national and state levels to prevent gays from marrying and, in some cases, parenting children, was headed for reform.

Dolan’s spin

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of the conference, said the pope’s words were welcome, but he interpreted them to mean the church has to become smarter about dealing with the hot-button issues.

“He knows that his highest and most sacred responsibility is to pass on the timeless teaching of the church. What he’s saying is, ‘We’ve got to think of a bit more effective way to do it. Because if the church comes off as a scold, it’s counterproductive,’” said the former archbishop of Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki was not available for comment, according to Julie Wolf, the director of communications for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the day after excerpts from Pope Francis’ interview went viral, so did reports of Francis’ remarks to Catholic doctors in which he denounced abortions as a symptom of a throw-away society and news that the church had excommunicated an Australian priest who supports the ordination of women and legalizing same-sex marriage.

“I think, now, we have a change in tone. Do I have faith there will be a sea change among church hierarchy? I just can’t say,” said Jason Rody, who attends Mass with his husband at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Chicago’s heavily gay Lakeview neighborhood. “But I like what I’m hearing. And I love my God.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

On deadline

As WiG went to press, Francis had convened the inaugural meeting of his eight cardinal advisers for three days of brainstorming on revamping the antiquated Vatican bureaucracy and other reforms. The meeting was taking place behind closed doors.