When news broke yesterday that Pope Francis had endorsed same-sex civil unions — breaking with the longstanding tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and his predecessors — my group text started blowing up.
Made up of several Catholics (at least by upbringing) and three soon-to-be lawyers, we agreed this was a massive step. After all, the previous pope, Benedict XVI, called homosexuality an “intrinsic moral evil.” Now, here was Pope Francis taking what appeared to be the complete opposite stance: “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family,” he said in his groundbreaking interview. “They are children of God.”
“This is huge IMO,” one friend texted. “Taking this as a W in what feels like a sea of Ls.”
“This gives me hope,” responded another. “The fact that the pope has to say that gay people are children of God is a problem within itself … but sadly, there are a lot of Catholics who need to hear that.”
While Francis has suggested in past interviews that he is not personally against civil unions, this is the first time as the leader of the Church that he has directly come out in favor of them. “You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered,” the pope says in the interview for Francesco, a documentary about his life that premiered at the Rome Film Festival yesterday.
"This news should send an undeniable message to Catholic families with LGBTQ people that all family members are deserving of acceptance and support," said Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of the LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD, in a statement. "Pope Francis’ public approval is a fundamental step forward at a time when LGBTQ acceptance around the world and across religions is expanding and rightfully becoming the norm."
Others on Twitter noted that this was a huge step forward for making the millions of LGBTQ Catholics worldwide feel welcome in their own communities.
Still, my friends and I acknowledged the elephant in the room: The pope was not talking about marriage, which the Church still explicitly states is between a man and a woman. And this did nothing to change the Catholic Church’s official teaching, which holds that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” As another friend bluntly put it: “I hesitate to applaud these efforts which do little to address or acknowledge decades of really deep harm — and still endorse othering.”
We agreed. So was it silly to even be celebrating? What did it mean that the head of the Catholic Church worldwide — a historically slow-moving institution — was coming out in support of LGBTQ rights at the same time they’re being threatened here, in the “greatest nation on earth”?
As millennial women who met at a liberal university, my friends and I who were raised Catholic acknowledge our personal values haven’t aligned with the Church’s — especially on issues of abortion and same-sex marriage – for some time. And yet, Catholicism was a huge part of our lives. We spent years making our sacraments, going to church, and, in some cases, reading from the Bible on Sundays, and attending Catholic school. One friend is in the required counseling process with a priest to get married in the Catholic Church next summer. Pretty much all of us agree we will most likely baptize our future children, even if it is simply to appease our parents or grandparents.
So, we couldn’t help but feel a small sense of hope and relief — finally, something encouraging from the Catholic Church — especially after seeing Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett praised for being a "good Catholic" while holding traditional views that make us shudder. (Although we don't know exactly when the interview took place, some drew the connection between the two events more bluntly. “Did the Pope just tell Judge Amy to go f*ck herself?” one Tweet read.)
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After all, this is a woman who has publicly supported organizations that believe the IVF process should be criminalized, prompting a fertility journal to speak out against a Supreme Court nominee for the first time in its 70-year history. This is a woman who voted to overturn a ruling in favor of a pregnant rape victim. And perhaps most importantly, as it relates to the Pope’s comments, this is a woman with a history of being hostile towards LGBTQ rights.
As the AP reported this week, Barrett served on the board of private Christian schools “that effectively barred admission to children of same-sex parents and made it plain that openly gay and lesbian teachers weren’t welcome in the classroom.” In her confirmation trials, Barrett used the outdated and offensive term “sexual preference,” which as Senator Mazie Hirono pointed out, “is used by anti-LGBTQ activists to suggest that sexual orientation is a choice. It is not." While Barrett claimed ignorance, considering she defended the dissenters in the landmark 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case that legalized same-sex marriage, her words signaled to many that marriage equality would be on the chopping block should she be confirmed.
Which is why we can’t let the pope’s ‘endorsement’ blind us: Catholicism is still being weaponized before our very eyes to promote hatred and discrimination. (The National Catholic Reporter has come out against her nomination in a searing editorial, writing, “What disqualifies Barrett is the extreme moral relativism she displayed in her confirmation hearing.”)
To further complicate matters, there’s the fact that presidential candidate Joe Biden also happens to be a practicing Catholic. If elected, he would become only the second Catholic president in our country’s history.
As The Atlantic points out, American Catholics have been split down party lines in every election since Roe v. Wade. So, even though President Donald Trump, a Protestant, has publicly feuded with Pope Francis, who called him "un-Christian" for his plans to build a wall, it's unsurprising that he still has the unwavering support of single-issue, anti-abortion Catholic voters.
These so-called 'Catholic wars' were on full display during the vice presidential debate. Vice President Mike Pence called out Democrats for questioning how Barrett’s membership in a small, mostly Catholic group called People of Praise, that some have called a ‘religious cult’, would affect her view of the issues facing the court. "We particularly hope that we don’t see the kind of attacks on her Christian faith that we saw before," Pence said.
Harris fired back: "Joe Biden and I are both people of faith and it's insulting to suggest that we would knock anyone for their faith.” After all, Biden and Harris have both used a campaign slogan with clear religious undertones: Battle for the soul of the nation.
It seems obvious that the problem here isn’t really faith, but the fact that Biden’s brand of Catholicism doesn’t fit into the conservative agenda. It’s why — despite the fact that Biden attends Mass weekly and carries a rosary in his pocket — the head of the Trump campaign’s Catholic Advisory Board calls Biden a “fake Catholic.”
So, what does being a “real” Catholic mean anymore when it seems to be used to support two seemingly contradictory belief systems? To many, supporting gay marriage or a woman’s right to choose an abortion perhaps earns an immediate “fake Catholic” label. But in 2020 — with the head of the Catholic Church taking a historic step towards equality — it feels like a chance to flip the narrative.
Catholicism aside, the choice has never been more clear: Vote with the side that leads with empathy and unity, or one that spews hatred and division.
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