The Pope and Gay People: Nothing’s Changed

The media has been in a tizzy these past few days over some remarks made by Pope Francis on an airplane flight back from a trip to Brazil:

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis told reporters, speaking in Italian but using the English word “gay.”

Judging by the rapturous response from some quarters, one might think that these few mildly conciliatory, off-the-cuff sentences had wiped away centuries of dogmatically entrenched homophobia. Andrew Sullivan’s reaction was illustrative:

What’s so striking to me is not what he said, but how he said it: the gentleness, the humor, the transparency. I find myself with tears in my eyes as I watch him. I’ve lived a long time to hear a Pope speak like that – with gentleness and openness, reasserting established dogma with sudden, sweeping exceptions that aren’t quite exceptions – except they sure sound like them.

What this teary-eyed praise elides is that this isn’t actually a change to any church policy. As far as I’m aware, it’s always been the Vatican’s position that gay people can be priests so long as they’re willing to commit to a life of celibacy. (Admittedly, the previous pope seemed to endorse the idea of banning men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from the seminary – but even in the most favorable light possible, these remarks would merely be a reversion to what the policy was before then.)

The pope notably didn’t say that same-sex attraction isn’t a disorder, that homosexual sex isn’t a sin, or that the church should or would cease its efforts to deny civil rights like marriage to gay and lesbian couples. He also didn’t disavow his own past remarks calling marriage equality “a move by the father of lies“. All those cruel teachings, which have caused such vast harm to gay people both Catholic and non-Catholic, stand unaltered.

So why did these casual remarks get such an enthusiastic reception? Of course, part of the reason is that there’s a man-bites-dog element to this: against a background of centuries of dogmatic hostility towards homosexuality and gay people, any statement which seems even slightly conciliatory is considered newsworthy.

But I think a deeper reason is that a lot of people want the church to change its ways. In an increasingly tolerant and accepting world, the church’s unbending opposition to gay rights is an embarrassment. Many people who still belong to the church are undoubtedly ashamed of being associated with this bigotry; others are just embarrassed on the church’s behalf. They’re rooting for the Vatican to reconsider, and they’re eager to seize on even the flimsiest scrap of evidence suggesting that it will. (A piece of evidence supporting this hypothesis is that, during the same flight, Pope Francis also firmly said that women will never be allowed to become priests – his exact words were “the church has spoken and said no… that door is closed“. Those remarks didn’t get nearly as much press.)

As I’ve said before, I think this impulse comes from a good place. I understand the motivations of people who want the Catholic church to join the modern world. But as I said on that past occasion, the church isn’t a democracy and has no obligation to change with the times. Moreover, like most religions, it regards adherence to its own past errors as a sacred duty.

So, for those people who are hoping for a change that may never come, for those who eagerly leap on any remark from a church official that suggests even a slight thawing of orthodoxy, I ask you: Why strain at these gnats when secular people have been in the right all along? You’ll never see a headline like “Leader of Atheist Group Expresses Tolerance of Gay People” – that story would never need to be written. The Catholic church missed the boat on this; like many other religions, they’re being left behind by their own choice. Why not accept it and move ahead with the rest of us, rather than hanging back in the vain hope that they’ll finally come from behind and catch up?

Image credit: Shutterstock

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • L.Long

    So true, nothing has changed cuz he did not say anything new. He just left a little spit roll out his lips then wiped it away.

  • Guest

    The answer tends to be that they find something emotionally fullfilling in Catholic rituals, or something intellectually satisfying about Catholic tradition. From the outside, it’s hard to understand. You don’t even have to become atheist to be gay friendly- the quakers and the unitarian universalists are pro-gay marriage. As are many non-Christian religions, like liberal Judaism and paganism. It’s the same with women’s rights- there are many Christian groups now where women can lead, and yet some women choose to stay with the Catholic church and try to change it from within. Why do they waste their energy? I don’t know. To me, there is nothing of value in the Catholic church. But maybe it’s a question of identity, habit or just wanting some payback from the time they’ve already invested in it. And good luck to them.

  • Figs

    I tend to look at this a little more kindly than you. I don’t imagine that the strictures of the church would allow any Pope to, a couple of months into his papacy, come straight out and say the stuff you said would have been better. Would it have been better? Absolutely. But this is an organization with a whole ton of troublesome history weighing down on it, and like you said, a commitment to adherence to that troublesome history.

    I think that some of the rapturous praise is misplaced. And I think that obviously the church needs to change a lot of stuff to even be considered close to the modern era. But I think there doesn’t have to be tension between saying they need to do more and offering some faint praise toward even small moves in the right direction.

  • Darren

    I, too, doubt that anything has changed.

    Let’s ask the following question:

    “Which is to be preferred, for an orphaned child to be
    adopted into a loving, nurturing, stable, supportive, and legally recognized
    same sex family, or for that orphaned child to live out the remainder of his
    childhood in an orphanage?”

  • Elizabeth

    offering some faint praise toward even small moves in the right direction.

    I think its good that Benedict for took climate change seriously.
    I think it’s good that Francis cares for the poor.

    But in what way were the Pope’s remark’s “a small move in the right direction?” It was a simple restating of church doctrine.

  • Figs

    In comparison to Benedict’s stance, which was that gay people should be denied right to enter the priesthood, it was indeed a small, small step. Yes, it’s entirely in accordance with existing church doctrine. But it’s a marginally better way of interpreting and administering it.

  • Adam Lee

    I suppose it’s a fair point that even the most progressive pope we can conceive of, if he wanted to liberalize Catholic attitudes toward homosexuality, would have to move in small steps.

    On the other hand, I think the church has often tried to mollify critics not by making any actual changes, but by hinting that maybe changes of some sort might come about at some point in the future, possibly. To people who are overeager for any hint of progress, like the ones I wrote about here, that kind of stalling tactic can work almost indefinitely (and it usually gets them good press without them having to do anything at all).

    If Francis takes any real steps toward changing the church’s worldly politics, then I’ll admit I was wrong about him. In the meantime, I’m going to withhold my praise. After all, the most optimistic possible interpretation of this statement still shakes out to, “The pope says gay people can be priests, so they can help the church spread its message of why gay people are evil!”

  • Figs

    Right, I agree with this completely. I’m not saying that everybody should be dancing in the streets because of this. I’m saying that compared to his predecessor he’s slightly better, and it’s worth taking a little pause, saying, “OK, that’s better, now what?” If “now what?” turns out to be nothing, then this is indeed nothing. But I don’t really understand how somebody like the Pope could be freed up to make more substantial moves (even if he wanted to, which I don’t at all know that he does) if the reaction to a tiny, tiny, pre-move like this is hostile from all sides.

  • Michael

    You’re right on his comments, but they have changed some things. No more does the Church approve capital punishment, for instance, which it did throughout its history up into the 1990s. It’s not impossible for change to occur-just unlikely.

  • Michael

    I myself at times find the pomp and circumstance of Catholic ritual to be alluring. Very strange, and wholly irrational, but people behave irrationally. Of course it’s still no reason by itself for supporting the Church, but things like that, even tangential, can motivate people to do so.

  • smrnda

    If a pope wanted to change the direction of the church, a pope could do so as they are the head of a rigid top-down hierarchy – there might be a bit of tension, but the Catholic church is not a democracy.

    I really dislike it when people who are anti-GLBT sugar-coat their opinions, I’d rather the hostility was out in the open, since to me, I don’t think it matters whether or not a given person *actively hates* homosexuals, what matters is the type of policies they support regarding the GLBT population. When people phrase things *nicely* GLBT persons are expected to nod and smile even when the platforms being advanced aren’t much different than those of the louder, nastier homophobes.

  • Jason Wexler

    Alain de Bottom makes the claim that it’s the ritual and pageantry people like, and that atheists need to co-op those things to make themselves more appealing… personally I’ll stick with cos play and cons.

  • Jason Wexler

    If they don’t sugar coat their views then they can’t pretend they are just and righteous, or at least not easily.

  • Steve Bowen

    I’d consider it an improvement if this Pope took a “do no harm” approach. He can disapprove of gays and contraception and abortion if he wants, just STFU about it and do those things he has actually proved he can do like looking out for the poor in a meaningful and practical way. Oh and clean out the vatican of pedophiles.

  • J-D

    “I like the Walrus best,” said Alice, “because you see he was a little sorry for the poor oysters.”

    “He ate more than the Carpenter, though,” said Tweedledee. “You see he
    held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn’t count how
    many he took: contrariwise.”

    “That was mean!” Alice said indignantly. “Then I like the Carpenter best—if he didn’t eat so many as the Walrus.”

    “But he ate as many as he could get,” said Tweedledum.

    This was a puzzler. After a pause, Alice began, “Well! They were both very unpleasant characters—”

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    Hypothetically, what would happen if the Pope just up and started declaring radical changes? Can he get kicked out of office?

  • Andrew G.

    No, he can’t be kicked out.

    The traditional remedy for recalcitrant popes is assassination.

  • Figs

    I’m not sure, but I don’t think he’s got the leeway to say that what all the other popes said is bullshit, whether or not he believes that it is (I’m not trying to say I think he thinks this).

  • Michael

    Agreed. In any case, pageantry and ritual do not make a religion by themselves.

  • Michael

    You’re right, the Pope cannot be removed for any reason according to Canon law, even due to mental incapacity, as this article shows:

  • Quid

    Yeah, what’s Francis thinking trying to give us moral advice. It’s not like he’s the spiritual father of one of the world’s largest churches, or anything.

  • Quid

    Of course no teachings have been changed. I expect nothing less of the media to completely misunderstand everything, but the rest of us would have to be complete idiots to think the Church has changed its teachings. Catholicism is a religion of absolutes: it doesn’t change with the whims of the culture, or hide under the banner of “progressivism.” Think about it, Catholics believe the Church is the fullness of truth. 2000 years ago morality was the same as it is today, and the same as it will be 2000 years from now.

  • Adam Lee

    It looks like we’ve got another contestant in everyone’s favorite game, “Has the Catholic Church Ever Changed Its Mind About Morality?” Quid, come on down!

    In today’s round, you get to answer the following questions:

    * The Catholic church once taught that it was morally acceptable to torture heretics (Ad extirpanda). Does it still teach this?

    * The Catholic church once taught that it was morally acceptable to take and own slaves (Dum diversas). Does it still teach this?

    * The Catholic church once taught that Catholicism ought to be the only permitted religion and that all other faiths ought to be suppressed by law (Syllabus of Errors). Does it still teach this?

  • Quid

    *Not dogma

    *Not dogma

    *Still not dogma

    The Church delineates between moral issues of the day, which must be taken on a case by case basis and sweeping declarations that are intrinsic to our nature, such as two guys having sex. In your three examples above, none of them are ex cathedra statements about universal morality.

  • smrnda

    Exactly how does one meaningfully separate ‘moral issue of the day’ with ‘universal morality?’ This seems like a kind of artificial ‘church-speak’ to me where the church defines certain things to be ‘time sensitive issues’ as opposed to ‘timeless issues’ and says ‘hey, we only changed our minds about the first ones?’

    How long has this distinction been officially dogma?

    If anybody thinks two guys having sex consensual is a bigger moral issue than owning people as property, I’d say that person and their organization has some very distorted priorities, and I would ignore any opinion they had on any issue, except perhaps to mock it.

    I know Catholics always tell me that I just don’t *know enough about Catholicism* and that if I only devoted a decade to reading church documents I’d see the light, but given how large of a stack that is, that’s a pretty unreasonable request. How does any Catholic know there aren’t doctrines out there still in effect that they don’t know about which would present a vastly different picture of Catholicism than the on they have?

  • Joe Barron

    Well-said. The aversion of the previous two popes to gay priests was a result of the sex abuse scandal, of course, and as such, it was yet another embarrassment. Here was an institution with a 2,000-year history of subtle, one might say hair-splitting, judgments about levels of sin and culpability, and yet the men in charge could not draw the broad and simple distinction between homosexuality and pedophilia. What Francis was saying was that he does not think that gay priests would necessarily be child molesters. I suppose that’s progress of a sort.

  • Ani J. Sharmin

    But I think a deeper reason is that a lot of people want the church to change its ways. In an increasingly tolerant and accepting world, the church’s unbending opposition to gay rights is an embarrassment. Many people who still belong to the church are undoubtedly ashamed of being associated with this bigotry; others are just embarrassed on the church’s behalf. They’re rooting for the Vatican to reconsider, and they’re eager to seize on even the flimsiest scrap of evidence suggesting that it will.

    I’ve always been frustrated when a religious leader says, in substance, very much the same thing that’s been said by others (usually along the lines loving everyone, but still not supporting any advance in equality) and people act like it’s an improvement. I’m usually baffled at the response, wondering why people who support equality (and who criticize other public figures, like politicians, more harshly for these kinds of statements) would praise such comments. You make a good point about a possible explanation.

  • jasmine999

    I agree. However, this IS a real, albeit mild improvement compared to the previous pope’s attempt to place the blame for the church’s pedophilia scandal directly on gay priests. That was disgusting beyond belief. Catholics who take a liberal stand on sexuality (ie, most Catholics) for whatever reason find this pope much less objectionable than his fascist predecessor.

    Also, I know two very conservative Catholics who are literally disgusted with this pope, so it works both ways.

  • GCT

    The RCC has no room to give anyone moral advice.

  • Adam Lee

    That sound I hear must be you backpedaling. As you’ll no doubt recall, you originally said “Of course no teachings have been changed” and “Catholicism is a religion of absolutes: it doesn’t change with the whims of the culture”. Then, when I presented evidence that the church has in fact changed its teachings in some important ways, you retreated to claiming that those things weren’t “dogma”, and offered lawyerly rhetoric about how “moral issues of the day must be taken on a case by case basis”.

    Now, here’s your bonus question: If “2000 years ago morality was the same as it is today,” was it ever morally right for the church to advocate torture, slavery, or theocratic government?

  • GCT

    Catholic adoption agencies have decided it is better to shut their doors down than to allow gay couples to adopt. IOW, it’s not about the children for them, it’s about wanting to discriminate against gays. You can sugar-coat it all you want, but you’re defending discrimination and hatred.

    Oh, and cite please that gays are less willing to take on difficult to place children than hetero couples.

  • Darren

    Ah, I see. I must have misunderstood the position of the various Catholic-affiliated adoption agencies – they simply wanted to ensure an adequate supply of healthy, white, babies for straight couples to adopt, then?
    I do not know about you, but my argument _is_ about what is best for the child, and two dad’s beats life in an orphanage any day.
    But, this is really an easy problem to solve. If the RCC is most concerned about the ideal situation for the children: every catholic adopts, there are 1.2 billion of them, and they are already enjoined to be “open to life”… problem solved, yes?