Hopes among the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) crowd were raised with the 2013 anointment of the current Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who took on the name of St Francis of Assisi. Soon after taking over as Pope, Francis made a statement that was most unusual for the leader of the Catholic Church: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" Francis' words ricocheted around the world and invited both praise and disdain. On the one hand, his remarks were torn apart by conservatives who felt the Pope had gone too far in his defence of a "mortal sin". On the other hand, countless Catholics who identify as homosexual and crave the Church's acceptance saw in the Pope's words an opening that had been denied them for too long. Neutral observers hailed the Pope for moving forward on gay rights, a secular issue where the Church has lagged the broader zeitgeist by a long shot.
Francis reiterated his beliefs at the Church synod in October last year. On the question of gay clergymen he asked that the Church show greater flexibility and refrain from "clos[ing] oneself within the written word, and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God." With his statements, Francis was not only looking to redefine the Church's relationship with homosexuals, he was also waging a fight that had few precedents. Pope Benedict XVI, after whom Francis had taken over, had been categorical about his dim views of homosexuality. On the issue of gay clergy, he had said that men with "deep-rooted homosexual tendencies" ought not to be priests. In spite of Francis' entreaty, however, the text that was finally approved at the synod was stripped of content that would have suggested a change of stance on homosexuals. While an earlier draft had said that homosexuals had "gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community", the revised document only said that discrimination against gay people "is to be avoided".
It would be reasonable to assume that the Pope, as the head of the Catholic Church, can only take halting steps in the direction of greater recognition of homosexual rights within the ambit of the Church. Given the history of the movement and the inherent conservatism of the religious order, some would say any progress, however little, should be welcomed.
However, Francis' more recent statements have dissipated some of the early heady promise of his papacy. In remarks made in Manila early this year, the Pope spoke about the threat to the family "by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage." He also warned against temptations to confuse "sexuality, marriage and the family."
The debate got a fresh lease of life this week as reports of the Vatican declining the French choice for ambassador to the holy state appeared. The reason: the presumptive candidate's homosexuality. The French government had proposed senior diplomat Laurent Stefanini for the post in January. Stefanini, a career diplomat who has served in French embassies in other countries, is openly gay.
So, what has changed? Has Francis finally bowed before the collective anti-gay sentiment of the order? In fact, Francis' stand on homosexuality is consistent with the Church's more egalitarian view on the matter. The Church stopped viewing homosexuals as the problem a long time back. Homosexuality? Not so much. If a homosexual is happy with repenting his orientation and seeking deliverance in the house of God, that scenario is rather inviting to a Church looking to redeem sinners. But all this nonsense about being proud and accepting of oneself and demanding equal rights? That the Church won't abide.
This then appears to be Francis' version of greater acceptance of homosexuals, one that restricts itself to bestowing God's kindness on those who are willing to identify their "disease" and seek forgiveness. The moment you want to step out of the darkness and look for some acknowledgement of your humanity, a willingness on the part of your religious order to show you the same dignity shown straight people, well, you are shown the door. The Church, as per this narrative, would not permit an out and proud man such as Stefaninito even take up a job that is purely diplomatic and does not, at any rate, involve religious duties.
This debate is important because the Catholic Church wields enormous power and can shape the opinions of the over one billion Catholics globally. But the Church forgets that it has skin in the game too. In our increasingly irreligious times, the Church is missing out on an opportunity to welcome true believers on the pretext that they do not sexually conform. It is possible that such tensions might ultimately cause the Church to split, a not unwelcome outcome for gays looking for acceptance by the Church. Perhaps Francis would come out with full acceptance then.