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The politics of Pope Francis' call to end the criminalization of homosexuality
He didn't change Catholic doctrine. And won't. But he nonetheless dealt a blow to Catholic bishops and conservatives in the American church.
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Many people don’t care what the pope or the Catholic church have to say about sexual or gender identity, or anything else. And honestly, I don’t personally care, in the sense that I’m not a believer in the faith nor need the pope’s validation.
But I do recognize the Catholic church as a powerful global institution. The Vatican is a nation state with a seat at the United Nations and with ambassadors around the world. A tiny country whose head of state has outsized influence on the world stage.
As someone who was arrested decades ago protesting the man who became the previous pope — back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) — I saw the way the Vatican successfully lobbied other governments to withhold vital HIV prevention programs as it demonized homosexuality while the AIDS epidemic exploded.
So when Pope Francis gave an interview to the Associated Press this week not only calling for ending the criminalization of homosexuality but stating the church and its bishops should take the lead in pressuring other nations, it was pretty big news, no matter what you think of the pope.
There’s been much discussion about how Francis stated this while reportedly saying homosexuality is still a “sin.” In fact, he didn’t say that as reported, and some have pointed to mistranslations.
But no matter, Francis is not and cannot change the interpretation of church doctrine on homosexuality, which Ratzinger helped to grotesquely define as “intrinsically disordered,” back when he was heading up the CDF in the 1980s.
Only the CDF interprets church doctrine, and that process involves a lot of men who are deeply embedded in the Vatican, most of whom are still as right-wing and homophobic as they were in Ratzinger’s day. (Even at that time, however, contrary to what many believe, they didn’t actually cast homosexuality as a “sin,” even as they labeled it an “inclination” that was “disordered.”)
The power in what Francis did this week, however, was in ordering the church and the bishops worldwide — as the supreme monarch of Vatican City, in addition to being the head of the Catholic church — to take the lead on pressuring other governments to decriminalize homosexuality.
“Being homosexual isn’t a crime,” Francis said during an exclusive interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.
Francis acknowledged that Catholic bishops in some parts of the world support laws that criminalize homosexuality or discriminate against LGBTQ people…But he attributed such attitudes to cultural backgrounds, and said bishops in particular need to undergo a process of change to recognize the dignity of everyone.
“These bishops have to have a process of conversion,” he said, adding that they should apply “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us.”
You have to love the use of the word “conversion” — a direct translation — turning the word on its head, since it is anti-LGBTQ advocates who promote “conversion therapy” of LGBTQ people.
The pope’s statement will have impact in countries throughout Africa, Asia and elsewhere where the church is growing (unlike in the West, where it’s shrinking), where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment or death. Surely it’s also a jab at Iran, Saudi Arabia and other theocracies. According to the Human Rights Trust, 67 countries worldwide penalize homosexuality, with 11 imposing the death penalty.
But it’s a blow to the American bishops as well, who are far to the right of Francis and align themselves with Christian nationalists in the Republican Party.
The American Catholic bishops back “don’t say gay” laws, as well as brutal discrimination against transgender people — even the efforts, such as by Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, to criminalize the parents of transgender youth for seeking gender-affirming care for their children. And they support the horrendous attacks on drag queen story hours, which are now facing violent threats by white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys.
These are the same Catholic bishops — the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops — who have advocated denying President Biden, a devout Catholic, from receiving communion (something Francis vocally pushed back on) because he supports abortion rights. They publicly came out against Biden’s signing the Respect for Marriage Act just months ago.
Let’s also not forget that six of the United States Supreme Court justices are observant Catholics, with five of them — Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett — being doctrinaire, hard-right conservatives.
Barrett has described herself as an orthodox Catholic, and before she joined the court she was actually paid money by a group that advocates the criminalization of homosexuality. Yet she also signed a letter in 2015, along with other Catholic professional women, promising to follow the dictates of Pope Francis, “in the culture, the workplace, and wherever the most important decisions are taken,” which makes the pope’s new statements even more interesting.
And Clarence Thomas, just months ago, in his concurring opinion in the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, stated that the court needed to revisit Lawrence v. Texas, which threw out sodomy laws in the states (and that sodomy laws are still on the books in several states, even if currently not enforceable.)
So, yes, Francis’s statement has a political impact in the United States.
But it’s what else he had to say in the interview — which included condemning increased access to guns — that gave a bit of a road map through the treacherous politics of the Vatican, as well as on what Francis may be doing in the church, including within the American church.
First off, he gave this interview one day after the deceased Benedict’s screed of a book published posthumously. In the book, Benedict, who is revered by radical right-wingers in the American church — including the Catholic bishops — decried the West as “intolerant” and attacked “radical manipulation of human beings” and “the distortion of the sexes by gender ideology.” He wrote that vocational training of priests is on the verge of “collapse,” pointing to “several seminaries, [where] homosexual clubs operate more or less openly."
Giving his interview the day after Benedict’s book published, Francis pretty much buried coverage of the book deeper than Benedict’s body is buried in the Vatican’s subterranean crypts.
In the AP interview Francis addressed the fact that the radical right in the church — the power center of which is in the American church — might be even more agitated now with Benedict dead. But he doesn’t much care.
Francis acknowledged the knives were out, but seemed almost sanguine about it…
…“The only thing I ask is that they do it to my face because that’s how we all grow, right?” he added….
… [He] addressed the criticism from cardinals and bishops that burst into public in the weeks since Benedict’s death, saying it’s unpleasant — “like a rash that bothers you a bit” — but that is better than keeping it under wraps. Francis has been attacked for years by conservatives and traditionalists who object to his priorities of social justice issues such as poverty, migration and the environment.
“If it’s not like this, there would be a dictatorship of distance, as I call it, where the emperor is there and no one can tell him anything. No, let them speak because ... criticism helps you to grow and improve things,” he said.
So Francis, who in prior years seemed rattled by the criticism by church conservatives — sometimes even bowing to it — was letting it be known that nowadays (and with Benedict gone) he couldn’t care less about the radicals and is happy to let them rant.
That could be because he feels more confident about isolating them, not just with Benedict’s death but also having made prominent moves in ousting some of the extremists.
In 2017 Francis removed the extreme ideologue who headed the CDF, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, and in 2022 he restructured the CDF amid a wave of new appointments there and throughout the Vatican, putting his reformist imprint in place, particularly on the issue of migration. In 2020 he replaced the influential, homophobic archbishop of Philadelphia, whom Benedict had put in place. It came after some other bold moves.
As the New York Times noted: “The move is a sign that the pope, who has installed key allies in Chicago and Newark, is still intent on changing the ideological direction of the American church by setting a new tone in one of its most traditionalist dioceses.” That same year Francis appointed the first African-American cardinal, Wilton Gregory, as Archbishop of Washington, DC, along with thirteen other cardinals he appointed, who, like Gregory, shared his vision and priorities of reform.
And this past December, in what was clearly used to send a message to others on the right in the church, Francis removed an anti-abortion activist from the priesthood, Father Frank Pavone, who led Priests for Life, and was a religious adviser to Donald Trump during his presidency.
As columnist Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter noted this week of the conservatives in the church and Francis’ current actions:
They may become louder as their influence wanes and their champions die off. They are not likely to be able to stem, still less stop, the reforms the Holy Father is inviting by means of the synodal process going on around the world.
Francis, who just buried his predecessor, knows that the clock is ticking. He may have three, maybe four or five more years as pope. Nothing in his first 10 years suggests he is going to radically attempt to change any doctrinal teaching of the church, but he might be more aggressive in changing the place of doctrinal teaching in the church.
As Winters seems to indicate, even going at a fast pace, Francis can’t change interpretation of church doctrine, certainly not in the next few years and with many extremists still deeply embedded in the church. But he is putting those in place who will take on those efforts — perhaps under the next pope, if Francis can made sure (via his current appointments) that someone in his mold is chosen as the next pope. Or, maybe, under the pope after that — or after that.
When it comes to changing doctrine and articles of faith, the Catholic church, after all, is glacial. It finally admitted Galileo, a target of the Inquisition, was right about the earth not being flat — and pardoned him — in 1992. It only took about 349 years. So I’m not expecting doctrinal change any time soon.
But the political priorities of the Vatican have changed, and I think this pope is going to push those priorities more dramatically in the next few years. The Vatican is as much a political organization as it is a religious one. And if the politics is pressuring the world in a progressive direction, that can only be a good thing.