The Day the Pope Said ‘Gay’

Fielding questions from the press on his way home from World Youth Day, Pope Francis skirted the issue of whether or not a “gay lobby” exists in the Vatican. His expression of support for Institutional Works of Religion prelate Monsignor Battista Ricca, who stands accused of carrying on affairs with men while representing the Vatican in Uruguay, was vague and tentative.

But the pope did use the word “gay,” several times. He was speaking Italian, where, as in English, the word has neutral-to-positive connotations. Though it was introduced by the journalists who were grilling him, Francis seems to have adopted it readily and uttered it without adding invisible scare quotes. In that simple linguistic concession, he demonstrated, once again, his willingness to engage with the world on its own terms.

It would be fair to say that the Vatican framed its statements on the subject of homosexuality in a spirit of pushback, with the gay rights movement doing the pushing. For that reason, official communication from Rome has tended to take a hunkered-down, defensive tone. In a 1986 letter, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith warned that in the decade since it had last addressed the matter,”an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good.” Attacking that interpretation meant rejecting the jargon of the party promoting it. In Church usage, there could be no gays, only “homosexual persons”.

This convention seems to have been observed pretty scrupulously. Despite its encouraging tone, “Always Our Children”, a letter from the USCCB’s Committee on Marriage and Family to the parents of LGBT children, conforms to it. Even while extending LGBT would-be communicants a qualified welcome with the jaunty exhortation “wash your hands,” Cardinal Dolan waxes clinical when referring to “the condition of homosexuality” and “same-sex attraction.” When it comes to the letter of Church teachings on homosexuality, Pope Francis hasn’t changed a thing, and almost certainly won’t. But regarding the people most directly affected by those teachings, he’s already bucked established style guidelines.

Many Catholics will resent it. No less than LGBT activists, we use language to construct our identity. A good case could be made that Francis, owing to carelessness, complacency, or both, has just surrendered a share of that identity — not an enormous share, maybe, but big enough to justify nail-biting speculation on whether, or how, it might be reclaimed. If Palestinian statehood is your goal, the last thing you want to do is start slinging around terms like “Judea” and “Samaria.”

With DOMA off the books and support for gay marriage growing, any concession on the Church’s part can look an awful lot like defeatism. But, as Ross Douthat points out in his Times blog, defeatism can look an awful lot like realism. To escape the plenary wrath of gay-marriage supporters, whose eventual victory is starting to look inevitable, Christians, including the Catholic Church, had better learn to play ball. If not, he says, support for traditional marriage could become “radioactive in the America of 2025 as white supremacism or anti-Semitism are today.”

From his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis knows this drill as well as anyone. When Argentina’s gay marriage bill was in play, the future pope damned it as “the work of the devil” and “an attempt to destroy God’s plan.” When it passed, he found himself in the paradoxical position of having to work out a modus vivendi for the Church in a country where God’s plan had been voted down. It may have been this experience that shaped Francis’ vision of a “culture of encounter,” or “a beautiful path toward peace,” where Catholics and non-Catholics can “meet one another doing good.” Francis never comes right out and labels it a post-culture war arrangement, but it fills in nicely as one.

Me, I’m all for creating that culture. For one thing, in contemplating the alternative, I don’t, unlike Douthat, underestimate the willingness of a Catholic cultural rearguard to play at scorched earth, making common cause with white supremacists where our interests would appear to coincide. In Crisis Magazine, political science and legal studies professor Stephen Krason argues that the commonly accepted notion of civil rights has become “an excuse for aberrant behavior and ignoring poor personal formation and deep-seated socio-cultural problems among different groups,” including both sexual and racial minorities. On that basis, Krason thinks civil rights is due a radical retooling. Not in my name, thanks.

In the second place, I suppose I should confess that a culture of encounter is what I’ve been living in all my life. As a relatively recent convert, I still have about as many gay close friends as Catholic ones. Referring to them by the words they choose themselves seems like nothing more than simple good manners. It helps throw a positive light on my conversion, indeed, on the whole notion of conversion. Insisting on using terms they find distasteful seems a positive insult, not to mention a sure conversation-stopper, on the order of “His mama calls him ‘Clay,’ so I call him ‘Clay.’”

Here I should pause to acknowledge the Christians who, in their own words, experience same-sex attraction, and reject labels like “gay” and “lesbian.” Message received, ladies and gents — not in your name. But Andrew Sullivan, who calls himself gay very proudly, seems impressed with Pope Francis, less by what, exactly, he said on the plane, than “the gentleness, the humor, the transparency” legible in his manner of speaking. It’s true, Sullivan didn’t single out Francis’ use of the word “gay” for particular praise, but I have to believe it influenced him. Try to say “gay” while smiling — comes a lot easier than saying “homosexual,” doesn’t it?

  • TheodoreSeeber

    That wouldn’t be you then, felliott. Or any *active* homosexual I know, because they deny the physical reality of gender.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I don’t know a single gay or lesbian couple that has raised a functioning adult citizen. The people my age who were raised in homes where one parent was homosexual, all have serious psychological conditions resulting from mental abuse.

    Trouble is, I can’t say that those raised by parents who got divorced are any better off.

    We must pray for those children who have been denied the love and affection of both biological parents. They are truly the ones most harmed by selfish adult desire.

  • felliott

    Ted, I’ve done the same charity work for straight junkies with AIDS in New York City. Am I a heterophobe?

  • felliott

    Ted, I’ve had five years of Latin and I read and write Spanish. You’re still full of it.

  • felliott

    Somehow I just can’t manage to be grateful to Ted for not murdering me because of how I was born (see his above post describing unjust discrimination). I can’t give up being gay (as opposed to having sex) without dying. What Ted said was hateful. What I said was a facetious paraphrase.

  • felliott

    Equal treatment under the law is part of the social contract. If you violate that right for innocent people, you have NO rights.

  • felliott

    You’re just showing how sleazy you can be.

  • felliott

    I lived my life according to the Church’s rules and had it threaten justify threatening every right I have as a citizen short justifying violence against me. That you support this obscenity earns you no gratitude from me.

  • lindenman

    What can I tell you? Ted outmaneuvered you. He managed to argue an outrageous position without venturing into any areas rendered in gray by site rules. Doesn’t make him the better man. Doesn’t mean he managed to win my sympathy or anyone else’s. It just proves he spends more time on the Internet. Don’t take it so hard.

  • felliott

    How’s this:

    Ted wrote:
    “Acting out on mythological fantasies is not equal to breathing.” Indeed. My sexual orientation is innate; your religion is not. Yet I am persecuted not for having sex, but for how I was born. So, I don’t see how freedom of religion trumps any innate status, and the Supreme Court of the State of California agrees with me, citing the fact that religion is neither salient nor immutable and sexual orientation is immutable and, in many cases, presumed sexual orientation is a matter of appearance.

    Perhaps, someday you’ll understand that what you’ve cited as instances of unjust discrimination are acts already criminalized by civil law. Perhaps, someday you’ll be honest enough to admit that you as a Catholic are protected from discrimination in employment, housing, education, etc. by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that gays have no such national protections.

    I, however, am not holding my breath.

  • felliott

    Ted, do you think that autistic men should have a right to adopt?

  • felliott

    Ted, just admit that children being raised by an autistic father are subject to emotional damage.

  • felliott

    Lisa posted hateful heresy to her blog. She wrote that homosexual orientation is sinful.

  • felliott

    So you support the idea that disorders are enough to disqualify one from parenthood. Should autistic parents be allowed to adopt? Is such an environment really best for children?

  • felliott

    “Same sex attraction” is used to demean even chaste gays by medically stigmatizing them so that their civil rights can be threatened to keep them from voicing dissent. The proper response to anyone who renames you to demean you is an extended middle finger.

  • felliott

    Ted, my deep seated homosexuality consisted of befriending the class f@gg0t at my redneck Jesuit high school in the 1970′s. I did so before I realizing I was gay. I got called f@gg0t and sexually harassed every day I was there. I refused to abandon him in spite of the fact that it meant complete ostracism. My deep seated homosexuality also consists of making an oath to God to avoid sex in 1983, when I saw the AIDS epidemic that was to follow but was never able to convince my peers.

    My deep seated homosexuality consists of a refusal to turn my back on those who are persecuted by the Church for their accident of birth.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Why would a straight junkie share needles with an MSM given the CDC warnings?

    I doubt those people are straight.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    No, the Church didn’t. Marriage isn’t a right, and the Church *supports* every other civil right for homosexuals.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Then what did the Pope really say?

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Because I use words you don’t understand?

  • TheodoreSeeber

    And that’s exactly why we have to do away with civil marriage entirely. The government should have NO rights in the Churches.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    And of course, my activism in insuring that homosexuals are not discriminated against in housing. And my activism towards other issues, such as AIDS research and hospice care for AIDS patients. But of course, you see all of that as hateful.

    You can give up having sex without dying. Many, many people have done it. That is what the Pope was referring to as “deep seated homsexuality”- the inability to be celibate, and thus, the danger of scandal for such people. I know several people who had deep seated heterosexuality as well who had to give up on the idea of the priesthood- I was one of them.

  • lindenman

    Son, someday you’ll understand that when a blog’s moderator (and sole content generator) gives policy, you follow it. So far I’ve shown you nothing but patience; in return for my troubles, you’ve given me nothing but lip. Now that my patience is exhausted, there’s only one thing left for me to show you: the door. Don’t let it hit you in the ass.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I posted this before he posted that. I have yet to respond to that, and in fact, have lost the link to it before I could respond.

    His real problem is the “redneck Jesuit” high school he went to where merely associating with a homosexual meant you were homosexual (I was unaware that homosexuality was contagious).

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I think the real problem was ” redneck Jesuit high school in the 1970′s”. The Catechism wasn’t printed until 1992, and the generation from 1963-1992 was largely catechised especially at Jesuit schools where it seemed that most of the brothers had forgotten their vow to support the Pope and would rather censor encyclicals than teach them.

    I congratulate you on your oath. The fact that you’ve been able to keep it means that your homosexuality is NOT deep seated- that you are able to resist temptation. My pity is more for those homosexuals whose homosexuality is truly from an accident of birth, not an accident of “befriending the class f@gg0t”.

    I’m not at all sure your “realization” is truth though. We humans have an endless capacity to lie to ourselves.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I’m not allowed to adopt for exactly that reason.

    I also have already admitted that my son has been harmed, not so much by my autism, which I was working on before he was born, but certainly by my gluttony.

    We have a responsibility to not allow our sin to harm others.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Depends what you do with it. You seem to be doing the best you can, short of actually attempting to engage in heterosexual fantasy to combat it.

    But we’re ALL sinners. Every last one of us. The Pope is a sinner.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Of course they are. Who said that they weren’t?

  • TheodoreSeeber

    “My sexual orientation is innate”

    I’m not sure of that. You see, I’m not at all sure MY sexual orientation is innate.

    I worked extremely hard to be heterosexual, to actually learn to see women as people instead of objects, to learn to use my sexuality for procreation rather than recreation.

    As for sexual orientation being immutable, I don’t see that either, I know far too many people who were once pseudosexuals who are now happily married with children. I know far too many people for whom sexuality was a matter of choice.

    I am, however, all for adding sexual orientation to Title VII rights.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Not as an automatic right, no. They should have to prove competency.

    But then again, I don’t think single men of any sort should have a right to adopt, and I think we need to be very careful vetting heterosexual couples for adoption. I’ve heard too many horror stories about adoption by HETEROSEXUAL men, even famous ones like Woody Allen, to believe otherwise.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I would also point out that post (the one referring to mythological fantasies) was directly in response to:

    ” I fight because my fantasies of meeting a special guy who I can take care of and who will take care of me, who I can cuddle up to, and give myself fully to have made me the target of a campaign whose end goal is my extermination, one way or another.”

    As an autistic, I had many mythological fantasies about owning a starship. Had to give those up too.

  • oregon catholic

    There is nothing stigmatizing about it. It is a descriptor, nothing more, and it is necessary to separate out what the popular culture has muddied with the use of the term ‘gay’. We can’t have a conversation in our society without using terms that have the same meaning. And I stand by my statement that gay activists do not want separate terms for orientation and behavior because that puts the discussion immediately into a moral dichotomy they don’t want to deal with. And yet, to paraphrase MLK, we should all hope to live in a society where we are rightly judged by our behavior, not the sexual orientation we identify with.

  • oregon catholic

    By your logic, if I am an alcoholic by genetic determination and subsequent reinforcing behavior, I should feel no guilt for my willful drunkenness if my conscience is clear on the matter?

  • cajaquarius

    I never claimed it was superior, I claimed that it wasn’t bad simply because the biology was being misused. Trying to claim morality based off of biological function is as silly as claiming using my teeth to open a bag is inherently immoral. It is logically untenable. Nice try though.

    Bear in mind, I was more responding to comments below this thread but they fit in as a rebuttal here since the fantasy you are referring to is the one concerning my romantic orientation.

  • cajaquarius

    “As an autistic, I had many mythological fantasies about owning a starship. Had to give those up too.”

    So your love for your wife is no better or no more special to you than wanting to own your own star ship? Ouch. Hopefully you have never told her that as I imagine it would break her heart to learn she means so little to you as your wish to own something that was unrealistic.

    The beauty here is I don’t have to give anything up; star ships aren’t real just yet but finding my special someone is. Countless stories of a man seeing a woman or them falling together and living long, happy lives together. I doubt it is so different for men seeking men.

    If star ships were possible, your wish to own one would have been reasonable. My wish for love is not unreasonable nor mythological.

  • cajaquarius

    I do apologize if I called you a homophobe. I am not here to vent or fling insults. As for your support of civil unions, if we wanted to break it down and have Secular Marriage for me (e.g. Civil Union that is Federally Recognized) and Sacred Marriage for you (e.g. done in Church) then I am with you on that. I would also offer you real thanks for the work you have done, despite our disagreements.

    Offering a similar philosophical olive branch to you, let me say that I find what is happening in Europe with conservative churches being forced to marry homosexuals to be reprehensible every bit as much as you do. Telling them what they can and can’t do is, to me, abhorrent and an unlawful restriction of the freedom of expression that any free society should have.

    Christian Privilege does exist, though it is a state of mind, not so much being. A Christian who says that more positive depictions of homosexual characters on TV if infringing on his Churches rights demonstrates this; you have the freedom to speak but no freedom exists to protect you from rebuttal. No one has or should have a law preventing them from facing philosophical disagreement.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Morality that fails to fit with reality is worthless.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I see no way, given the argument that heterosexual marriage is against the First Amendment, to write a civil union law that allows any discrimination at all.

    We need a new term. And we need the government to stop “privileging” Christians by persecuting them. The only real way out is to end this farce known as civil marriage ENTIRELY. No more laws surrounding marriage. No automatic inheritance.


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