Since his papacy began in March of 2013, Pope Francis has been lauded by moderate Catholics, liberal-minded religionists, and even the occasional non-believer as a breath of (77-year-old) fresh air. At the time of his election, the Catholic Church was just beginning to pick up the pieces after its decades-long child abuse scandal had been exposed, and religious identity and church attendance among American Catholics was at a record low. Here was someone exciting, someone (supposedly) different—a smooth-talking Cardinal from Buenos Aires with a more politically polished style than his by-the-book predecessor.
But style is not policy, and in that regard, Francis has actually done little to distinguish himself from Benedict. Like past Catholic leadership, this pope opposes abortion and believes marriage is strictly between a man and a woman; and, for good measure, Francis even excommunicated an Australian priest who happened to support women’s ordination and marriage equality. Meet the new boss … who is basically the same as the old boss.
Still, a large number of Catholics have strained to hear a new “tone” in Francis’ various pronouncements. They hoped he would be a moderate, someone who could bring change to the Church. For example, whereas Pope Benedict would have angrily condemned gay people, Pope Francis’ slick new approach was to gently prevaricate, saying things like, “Who am I to judge?” while totally upholding the anti-LGBTQ teachings of the Church.
No, there has been very little actual change, and the Church’s latest statement—a result of their on-going and much-covered Synod on the Family—makes that as clear as ever:
Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
The question being asked here isn’t that hard to translate: How can we make gay individuals feel welcome in church without having to revise our virulently anti-gay doctrine? It doesn’t take much to deduce that by “gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community,” the Church is referring to tithing, volunteering, and using these individuals as a means to advance the Church’s own political agenda. And then:
The question of homosexuality leads to a serious reflection on how to elaborate realistic paths of affective growth and human and evangelical maturity integrating the sexual dimension: It appears therefore as an important educative challenge.
Read: We understand that in the court of public opinion, we’re on the losing side. What can we do in terms of PR to change this? And finally:
The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman. Nor is it acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.
Here’s where the Church really shows its hand. It reaffirms that marriage is only really marriage if it involves a man and a woman, and it stresses its opposition to clergy being pressured by governments to treat LGBTQ individuals as though they’re actually human beings. The phrase “gender ideology” stands out in particular.
For me, the term was a pretty clear callback to a 2012 Christmas address from Pope Benedict in which he railed against the existence of trans people. “No, what applies now is this: It was not God who created them male and female—hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves,” Benedict said, lamenting our modern understanding of gender.
Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed.
Later in his homily, Benedict went a step further, arguing that trans people are an affront to existence, generally.
When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defense of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.
When Pope Francis came in, he took a number of steps to walk back some of the harsher views Benedict had articulated (or at least present them in a more moderate light), but he never mentioned trans people. (Though that did not stop Catholic news site Catholic.org from comparing us to demons in a 2013 article.) The last official word on trans people was that 2012 tirade—until this week. And it wasn’t an improvement.
But you wouldn’t know that from the coverage of the synod statement in the LGBTQ and larger press, including here in Outward. The words regarding LGB people and their families were at best neutral in nature, but many acted as if they were major step forward for LGB and T Catholics. The Human Rights Campaign went so far as to declare this milquetoast news a “seismic shift in Rome,” and saying that this new document “praises committed gay and lesbian ‘partnerships.’” “Praises?” That’s certainly a bit strong, especially considering that the document also threw trans people under the bus. Before we laud the Church for kind of, sort of, maybe coming slightly closer to being cool with some gay couples, can we ask them to please reconsider their sub-human, demonic view of trans individuals? If “LGBTQ” is to have any meaning as a solidarity movement, (snail-like) progress for some letters cannot be had at the expense of others.