ROME — By now it is no big secret that Pope Francis is one of the most open-minded pontiffs in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, especially when it comes to traditionally taboo topics. He started his pontificate by shocking the world with the words, “Who am I to judge” on the question of homosexuality among the devout. And now he has taken that one step further by suggesting that the Catholic Church—or at least its leaders—not only apologize to members of the LGBT community it has previously shunned, but actually beg for their forgiveness.
When asked by Catholic News Agency’s bureau chief Cindy Wooden about a suggestion by German cardinal Reinhard Marx that the Church should ask forgiveness from the gay community for having marginalized them, especially in the context of the Orlando massacre, Francis first paused in what Wooden described as sorrow for the dead before responding.
“I will repeat what I said on my first trip,” he said, referring to the now infamous “who am I to judge” comment that earned him a cover photo on The Advocate magazine among other accolades. “I repeat what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: that they must not be discriminated against, that they must be respected and accompanied pastorally.”
He then went on in what has become his familiar thinking-out-loud process. “One can condemn, but not for theological reasons, but for reasons of political behavior,” he said, according to transcripts from the press conference. “Certain manifestations are a bit too offensive for others, no? But these are things that have nothing to do with the problem. The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge?”
By “condition” he most likely meant “orientation” as explained by Vatican veteran correspondent Philip Pullella of Reuters, who followed up with the Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi to clarify what Francis meant, coming to the conclusion that, “the pope, by saying ‘has that condition,’ did not imply a medical condition but ‘a person in that situation.’ In Italian, the word ‘condition’ can also mean ‘situation’.”
Francis then went on to suggest that the LGBT community isn’t the only group of people the Catholic Church needs to apologize to. “I think that the Church must not only ask forgiveness … to the gay person who is offended. But she must ask forgiveness to the poor, too, to women who are exploited, to children who are exploited for labor. She must ask forgiveness for having blessed so many weapons.
The Church must ask forgiveness for not behaving … When I say the Church, I mean Christians! The Church is holy; we are sinners! Christians must ask forgiveness for having not accompanied so many choices, so many families…”
He then went on to tell a story about growing up in Buenos Aires in a strict Catholic culture when people who had divorced couldn’t enter certain Catholic households. “The culture has changed, thanks be to God,” Francis said. “Christians must ask forgiveness for many things, not just these. Forgiveness, not just apologies.”
But just what an apology to the LGBT community, or to women or children or divorced people, for that matter, might look like is hard to envision. Francis certainly has a way of making broad, off-the-cuff suggestions, though subsequent implementation has not always been as easy. The pope himself has had as difficult a time as anyone in terms of squaring how he feels with what he, as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, can actually do. A case in point is his conclusion after two major synods on the family, after which, and despite the pope’s obvious affection and willingness to accept LGBT Catholics, the best the synod fathers could come up with was a somewhat watered down version of acceptance and a plea not to slam the door on gays, though never opening it to gay marriage, a sentiment which the pope accepted.
“In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, ‘as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,’” Francis wrote in his final analysis of the synods essentially agreeing with the Synod fathers’ conclusions that gays are OK but won’t be walking down the aisle any time soon. Then he scolded society as a whole for demanding that gay marriage be widely accepted, even accusing aid groups of holding aid hostage should a country not choose to accept gay equality, which is especially relevant in third world countries: “It is unacceptable that local churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex.”
What’s more worrying, perhaps, is that there is still a large number of shockingly close-minded leaders who hold power in the church hierarchy who would prefer any alternative to asking forgiveness from gay Catholics. American cardinal Raymond Burke, who has been sidelined to a ceremonial role within the Church by Francis, but who still holds considerable sway among Catholic conservatives, is one. He said just a few months ago that same sex couples and divorced and remarried Catholics living in what he and many conservative Catholics consider “grave sin” is no different from repentant murderers. “It’s like the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people,” he said when asked if being devout was enough for same sex couples and divorced and remarried Catholics.
That’s probably not the sort of apologetic tone LGBT Catholics are hoping for.
Still, there is hope. Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which is a 40-year-old Catholic ministry working towards justice and reconciliation for LGBT Catholics, essentially accepted the pope’s apology. “This step by Pope Francis shows that Church leaders can and should admit when they have been wrong, especially when their wrongs cause people tremendous and unnecessary harm. His message signals a major change in attitude for an institution which has a terrible history of ever admitting that it has done something wrong,” De Barnardo said in a statement. “For some LGBT people who have been so wounded and bruised by Catholic leaders’ negative messages, the pope’s statement may seem like too little, too late. While indeed we have waited a long time for an opening like this, I think it is important to rejoice at this step forward. We must work and pray to make sure that the next steps take place much quicker. Among those next steps are more dialogue between Church leaders and LGBT people.”
Clearly, Francis’s comments are a first step in a positive direction. But considering the mentality of the organization he leads, the journey may be the equivalent of circumventing the globe.