By Casey Given
Last month, The Advocate sparked a discussion among the gay community by bestowing its Person of the Year title on Pope Francis “for persuading hearts and minds in opening to LGBT people.” Supporters of the Advocate’s choice point to his now famous question last July, “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” Opponents such as The Huffington Post’s Gay Voices editor-at-large Michaelangelo Signorile point to homophobic statements Francis made as the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires calling gay marriage the work of the devil and “a destructive attack on God’s plan.”
Unfortunately, much of the commentary both pro and con has ignored how exactly the Church perceives homosexuality. In the context of Catholic dogma, the new Pope’s statements are far less groundbreaking than they initially seem. Rather, they conform to decades of Church teachings. As a former Catholic schoolboy, I present to you the good, the bad, and the ugly of gay rights in the Church.
First, the good. The Holy See has a relatively nuanced position on homosexuality compared to most Christian denominations. Contrary to many “pray-the-gay-away” evangelical churches, the Church believes that sexual attraction to the same sex is natural and not inherently a sin. The Church first acknowledged this fact its 1975 Persona Humana declaration On Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, deeming gay attraction to be an “innate instinct or pathological constitution judged to be incurable.” Considering the shame, falsehoods, and psychological torture that many churches subject countless gay young adults, the Church deserves credit for its relatively tolerant position among a sea of bigotry.
Now, the bad. While it’s okay to be gay in Catholicism, the Church draws a sharp distinction between homosexual attraction and homosexual action, asserting that the former is amoral while the latter is immoral. “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained in its 1986 letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, “it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”
Thus, while Pope Francis may very well welcome gay individuals to seek salvation through the Catholic Church, he will never condone any romantic relationship they would wish to pursue – not even monogamous marriage. Sexual relations for Catholics must be both love-giving in an exclusive, monogamous sense and life-giving, in its potential for procreation. Since gay sex cannot do the latter, the 1986 letter goes on to assert that “Christians who are homosexual are called… to a chaste life.” In short, the Catholic Church loves the “sinner,” but not the “sin.”
Finally, the ugly. Since the Church still sees gay relationships as sinful, it is unlikely to see any political mercy from the pontiff regarding LGBT rights anytime soon. Indeed, many opponents of Francis’ Person of the Year Awards are already saying “I told you so” after The Sunday Times of Malta reported the Pope was “shocked” by the Mediterranean country’s recent gay adoption bill and urged Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna to speak out against it. Gay rights advocates should expect a similar stance from the pontiff on all other political battles such as civil unions.
In short, the LGBT community should not mistake a change in rhetoric for one in dogma. Francis’s tolerant statements towards gays are indeed unprecedented for a Pope, but they underlie decades of doctrine. At the same time, the potential effect of Francis’s rhetoric should not be understated. As the product of a Catholic junior high and high school, I can see his words having a profound positive effect on what millions of my fellow gay young adults are taught and how they are treated by their peers at such a critical developmental stage. Nevertheless, much more must be done to achieve true LGBT equality inside and outside of the Church.
Casey Given is an editor and political commentator for Young Voices, an initiative to promote Millennials’ policy perspectives in the media.