Is Pope Francis an LGBT+ ally on a mission to detoxify the Catholic Church?
Or is he a fierce opponent who thinks same-sex marriage ‘disfigures’ society and that trans people are like ‘nuclear weapons’?
LGBT+ Catholics, campaigners and the world at large have debated these questions for the last decade. We have hailed him as our most progressive pontiff and criticised him as an outdated homophobe and transphobe.
But the truth is hidden in plain sight, in Pope Francis’ own words. All we have to do is to decode them.
‘Serious harm’: Before Francis became pope
Before he became pope, Francis was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
And there’s hard evidence of his thoughts on same-sex marriage. Although, as with all things Pope Francis, it’s shrouded in split meanings.
At the time – particularly from 2008 to 2010 – the debate on marriage equality was raging in Argentina. Fortunately the country eventually passed same-sex marriage.
But Bergoglio opposed the bill to allow marriage and for same-sex couples to adopt children. He reportedly warned it would ‘seriously harm the family’.
‘Let’s not be naïve, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies [the Devil] that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.’
He called on the Virgin Mary – among others – to join the ‘God’s war’ against marriage equality.
Moreover, he particularly attacked plans to allow same-sex couples to jointly adopt children. Bergoglio saw this as a form of abuse.
‘At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God.’
Furthermore, unconfirmed reports say he urged other Argentine bishops to support civil unions, which already existed in Argentina, as a compromise to avoid marriage equality. They, apparently, refused.
Bergoglio’s different message to his friend
But an interesting insight emerged years later from Bergoglio’s former student and friend, Yayo Grassi. At the time of the marriage debate in Argentina, Grassi challenged the archbishop on his stance.
Grassi later said: ‘I have known Pope Francis since he was my professor in high school, when I was 17. I know that he knew then that I was gay, and we have been friends ever since. He met … my boyfriend … and he’s always asking about him.
‘When the gay marriage law was being discussed … I read that Cardinal Bergoglio was very much against it and that he had said really painful and hateful things. I was very surprised.’
Grassi wrote the then-cardinal a letter, thanking him for his friendship and saying he was disappointed by his stance against marriage equality.
Bergoglio replied in just two days. He first asked forgiveness for the hurt his former student felt. But he claimed the press had distorted his words:
‘Yayo, believe me, in my pastoral work, there is no place for homophobia.’
The implication – that he opposed marriage equality but didn’t wish to hurt individuals – would become a theme of his papacy.
Pope Francis on being gay: ‘Who am I to judge?’
Bergoglio became pope and changed his name to Francis in March 2013. And it was right at the beginning of his papacy that he made his most famous comment on homosexuality.
Francis was speaking with the press on a plane flight when a journalist asked him about gay priests.
He replied: ‘If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?
‘They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [same-sex attraction] is not the problem… they’re our brothers.’
Unsurprisingly the remark sparked headlines around the world and LGBT+ activists warmly welcomed it. At the time, a pope even using the English word ‘gay’ was radical.
Furthermore, LGBT+ Catholics report that it helps their conversations in local parishes and dioceses to this day.
Later in the year, Francis expanded on his comment while speaking to America magazine.
He said: ‘In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are socially wounded because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them.
‘But the church does not want to do this.
‘During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.’
However, he did add that ‘religion has the right to express its opinion’.
Homosexuality is ‘disordered’ but ‘the pope loves you’
And sadly, it swiftly became clear that Pope Francis was going to act against LGBT+ people as well as for them.
In the same year, 2013, Francis formerly approved a 2006 document from the US giving priests guidelines on pastoral care for ‘Persons with Homosexual Inclinations’.
The document says homosexuality is ‘disordered’.
It adds: ‘The Catholic Church has consistently taught that homosexual acts are contrary to the natural law. Under no circumstances can they be approved.’
Despite this, Francis continues to welcome gay people as individuals.
One of the most recent, high profile examples came in April 2019. British, black, gay comedian Stephen K Amos was filming a BBC miniseries about his pilgrimage to Rome. Pope Francis agreed to meet him. And he said this about Amos’ sexuality:
‘It doesn’t matter who you are or how you live your life, you do not lose your dignity.’
The pope had a similar message for Juan Carlos Cruz, a gay survivor of clerical sex abuse in Chile who he met in 2018.
Francis said: ‘Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter. God made you like this and loves you like this and I don’t care. The pope loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are.’
Marriage equality ‘disfigures God’s plan’
Pope Francis has remained absolutely consistent, however, in battling marriage equality.
You may say his view is best summed up in his 2015 quote that same-sex marriage ‘disfigures God’s plan for creation’.
But there’s also a little anecdote which emerged from Twitter which demonstrates Francis really does dislike the idea of marriage equality. It came in October 2016, when news broke of two Italian former nuns marrying each other.
A Vatican official tweeted: ‘How much sadness on the pope’s face when I read him the news of the two married “nuns”!’
Francis’ preferred compromise appears to be the same he proposed while still Archbishop of Buenos Aires. He suggests same-sex couples should settle for civil unions rather than push for equality.
The pope made this case again in a book by Dominique Wolton (Politics and Society) published in 2017.
Francis said: ‘“Marriage” is a historical word. Always in humanity, and not only within the Church, it’s between a man and a woman… we cannot change that. This is the nature of things. This is how they are. Let’s call them “civil unions”. Let’s not play with the truth.’
‘Diversity’ means heterosexuals are best
Francis commonly approaches this topic by praising heterosexuality rather than criticising LGBT+ people. Cynics may conclude this is a deliberate strategy to denigrate our community.
For example, Pope Francis chose the day after Pride in Rome in June 2014 to tell a crowd of 25,000 people in the Vatican’s St Peter’s Square how wonderful heterosexuality is.
In particular, he said the differences between men and women make marriage work.
‘They’re not scared of the differences!’ the pope said. ‘What great richness this diversity is, a diversity which becomes complementary, but also reciprocal. It binds them, one to the other.’
Again, he praised heterosexual parents. And the audience would infer that same-sex couples make inferior parents.
Francis said: ‘Children mature seeing their father and mother like this.’
The implication is damaging. If embracing the difference of being male and female in a marriage is ‘an integral part of being human’, where does that leave trans and non-binary or lesbian, gay and bi people?
You may see the pope’s speech as a deliberate attempt to undo the good of Pride in the city the day before.
And, notably, this intervention came at an important time for LGBT+ equality in Italy. The country was debating how to recognize same-sex partners, leading to a civil unions law in 2016.
Strange allies for a progressive pope
Pope Francis’ opposition to equal marriage has created some unlikely alliances for a supposedly progressive pontiff. To put it bluntly, Francis has frequently supported outright homophobes.
In 2014, Francis addressed a Vatican conference which specifically promoted traditional marriage and, of course, opposed marriage equality.
The pope endorsed their view giving a talk titled ‘The Complementarity of Man and Woman’. During it, he stated that ‘today marriage and the family are in crisis’.
Francis added: ‘This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.’
He intervened again in 2015. Slovakia was holding a referendum to ban same-sex marriage, stop adoption by same-gender couples and allow parents to withdraw their children from sex education classes.
Experts say Catholic leaders had a leading role in bringing the referendum about. Naturally, they stirred up homophobia in Slovakia in the process.
But rather than criticise them, the Pope supported their efforts.
He said: ‘I wish to express my appreciation to the entire Slovak church, encouraging everyone to continue their efforts in defense of the family, the vital cell of society.’
Fortunately, they lost the referendum.
Kim Davis and the ‘right’ to refuse service to LGBT+ people
Again, during a trip to the US, critics accused Francis of meeting Kim Davis. She was the US government official who made international headlines when she refused to do her job and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Afterwards, Francis made a point of supporting Davis and those like her who have a ‘conscientious objection’ to doing their job because of their anti-LGBT+ views.
He commented conscientious objection ‘is a human right and if a government official is a human person, he has that right’.
Trans people are like ‘nuclear weapons’
Pope Francis’ language and alliances on the issue of same-sex marriage have often been extreme. But even this pales in comparison to his attack on trans and non-binary people.
His most explosive comments were revealed by GSN in February 2015.
Francis said: ‘Let’s think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings.
‘Let’s think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation.’
He added: ‘With this attitude, man commits a new sin, that against God the Creator,’
In other words, Francis attacked ‘gender theory’ which says people may transition, not live as totally male or female or reject a gender assigned at birth. And he compared the ‘destruction’ of these progressive views to nuclear war.
‘Why is sex a choice and not a fact of nature?’
Furthermore, he repeated his attack several times.
In 2015, Francis said it was not healthy to ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.’
And in 2017, he suggested ‘gender ideology’ was confusing children.
He said: ‘In books also, children are learning that they can choose their own sex. Why is sex, being a woman or a man, a choice and not a fact of nature?’
Here, of course, Francis almost hits on the point but is so blinded by his beliefs that he misses it.
Being trans or non-binary – like being gay or bi – is, of course, ‘a fact of nature’, not a ‘choice’. That is precisely why he should overturn current Catholic doctrine and embrace LGBT+ equality.
However, as he often does, Francis did show a level of compassion when he met a trans person in January 2015. Diego Neria Lejárraga told the pope he was rejected by his faith community after undergoing gender confirming surgery.
When he met Francis, Neria asked whether, after his transition, there was ‘corner in the house of God’ for him. Apparently, Francis then embraced him.
‘Serious issue’: gay priests and the ‘gay lobby’
Pope Francis also started his papacy by attacking gay priests in the Catholic Church’s central bureaucracy, The Curia.
He said: ‘In the Curia, there are holy people. But there is also a stream of corruption.
‘The “gay lobby” is mentioned, and it is true, it is there. We need to see what we can do.’
Of course, his comments confused many outside the church. If the ‘gay lobby’ really does control the machinations of the Vatican, it seems odd that the church opposes LGBT+ equality.
But Francis returned to the ‘serious issue’ of gay clergy many times. And, repeatedly, he states that there can be even less tolerance of gay people in the priesthood.
In a 2018 book, Francis said homosexuality was a ‘very serious issue’ and that candidates for the clergy should be pre-screened.
He said: ‘It can happen that at the time perhaps they didn’t exhibit [homosexuality], but later on it comes out.
‘In consecrated and priestly life, there’s no room for that kind of affection. Therefore, the church recommends that people with that kind of ingrained tendency should not be accepted into the ministry or consecrated life.
‘It’s better for them to leave the ministry or the consecrated life rather than to live a double life.’
Gay priests can’t ‘relate correctly’ to others
This interview endorsed the Vatican’s formal view on who should be allowed to be a priest. In December 2016, Francis backed a document which states the rules clearly.
It says the church can’t allow people to be priests ‘who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called “gay culture”.’
It adds: ‘Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women.’
Notably, the idea that gay or bi priests can’t ‘relate correctly’ to others would seem to contradict Pope Francis’ other view that it is the ‘person that counts’ and that your sexuality does not cost you your dignity.
Parents should pray and talk, not condemn
On face value, Pope Francis offers more compassion when talking to parents about their LGBT+ children.
In 2014 he said: ‘We come across this reality all the time in the confessional: a father and a mother whose son or daughter is in that situation [LGBT+].
‘We have to find a way to help that father or that mother to stand by their son or daughter.’
And in 2018 he provided more detail when a journalist asked him at a press conference what he might advise a parent whose child comes out as gay.
‘I would say first to pray. Do not condemn. Dialogue. Understand. Make space for the son or daughter; make space so they express themselves.
‘I would never say that silence is a solution. Ignoring a son or daughter with homosexual tendencies is to neglect giving them paternity and maternity.’
Furthermore, he suggested parents who didn’t know what to say, should seek advice.
He concluded: ‘That child has the right to a family. Don’t chase them away from the family.’
Naturally, his words were warmly welcomed. Parents rejecting their children is a major cause of the disproportionately high levels of LGBT+ youth homelessness.
However, it is unfortunate that Francis stopped short of encouraging parents to love and accept their children whatever their identity.
By making these comments without addressing the church’s teaching, he arguably leaves parents with more questions than answers. And that leaves children vulnerable.
Moreover, his attitudes are revealed in the language he uses. While perhaps not homophobic as such, phrases like ‘homosexual tendencies’ are outdated and are not how the community talks about itself.
Catholics should say sorry
Alongside Pope Francis’ compassion for LGBT+ individuals, there has been at least a glimmer of contrition for how the Catholic Church has treated the community.
The clearest example of this came on another papal flight in June 2016. The pope was returning home from Armenia when he said:
‘The church must say it’s sorry for not having comported itself well many times, many times.
‘I believe that the church not only must say it’s sorry … to this person that is gay that it has offended. But it must say it’s sorry to the poor, also, to mistreated women, to children forced to work.’
But he clarified: ‘When I say the church: Christians. The church is holy. We are the sinners.’
Of course, this is an important statement. One could argue that the Catholic Church has not merely ‘offended’ gay people but been involved and complicit in their torture and murder. Despite that, it was an important step in recognising past mistakes.
His last remark that it is Christians, not the church to blame also deserves analysis.
Pope Francis’ supporters may be encouraged by the fact he is encouraging personal responsibility for wrongdoing.
Cynics could may wonder if the Vatican and Catholic Church can ever reform unless its CEO first accepts it is institutionally homophobic, biphobic and transphobic. That acceptance is invariably an essential first step by any organisation which goes on to successfully tackle these problems.
Pope Francis meets and blesses LGBT+ faithful
Beyond his words, people have often looked at those the pope agrees to meet to try to discern his intentions to the LGBT+ community.
We’ve already seen that Francis has repeatedly met with homophobes and transphobes. But he has also greeted and blessed LGBT+ people.
In one of the most celebrated cases, the Vatican granted VIP seating to 50 LGBT+ and ally pilgrims from the US’s New Ways Ministry at a papal audience. This event, in St Peter’s Square was on Ash Wednesday 2015, an important date in the Catholic calendar.
Around a month later, in March 2015, Francis visited a prison in Naples, Italy. There he had lunch with 90 prisoners, 10 of whom were from the wing that holds gay, trans and HIV positive inmates.
Another time, he met with and blessed a lesbian Catholic who fights against conversion therapy.
Moreover, he indicated his desire to meet more LGBT+ people when he greeted Father Gil Martinez. His parish had created a video in which LGBT+ Catholics talked about their place in the church.
Martinez says Francis told him: ‘I would love to visit and talk to gay and lesbian people and please tell the gays to pray for me and I shall pray for them.’
LGBT+ supporters of Francis tend to highlight these meetings as highly significant. But at the same time, some of his LGBT+ apologists dismiss his meetings with homophobes as accidental or irrelevant.
A more cynical view may be that Francis is at best preserving contradictory views by playing both sides and at worst being obviously hypocritical.
The wrong subject
So a pattern emerges of Pope Francis’ views. On the one hand, he has expressed a desire to embrace LGBT+ people as ‘people’.
On the other, he is actively opposed to granting us rights and recognition. The advances he seeks to prevent are not abstract ambitions. They are essential if we are to be equal citizens and protected from harm.
But there is a further layer confusing the picture. One that means the pope rarely addresses LGBT+ issues and that, when he does, his answers tend to be short.
In fact, his interventions have almost always been in response to questions from journalists and pro and anti-LGBT+ campaigners.
Why? Because he seems to think this is the wrong subject – and would rather talk about something else.
The best evidence for this comes in a 2013 interview with America magazine.
Pope Francis said: ‘We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.
‘I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.
‘The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.’
In other words, when asked about these ‘moral’ issues, he will try to uphold church teaching. But he would rather not be asked.
Dogma may turn away young people away
Furthermore, he recognised that focusing on these particular ‘dogmatic and moral teachings’ could undermine the church.
‘We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.’
In a talk from the same year, 2013, he hinted that his particular fear is that a focus on these issues may make the church less relevant or popular to young people.
He referenced ‘gay unions’ and then said educational leaders must ask themselves ‘how can we proclaim Christ to a generation that is changing?’
Pope Francis added: ‘We must be careful not to administer a vaccine against faith to them.’
Why does it matter?
Of course, not all Catholics hang on every word Pope Francis utters. Many are LGBT+ themselves and many others are intelligent, independently-minded friends or allies of our community.
In fact, research from both the US and Australia indicates that Catholics are one of the more tolerant religions of homosexuality.
However, a US study by the Pew Research Center also found that allyship is inversely proportional to their faith. In other words, those who attend church more, pray more, read the Bible and believe in Hell, are more likely to think homosexuality should be ‘discouraged’.
Moreover, from the family to national level, Catholics and the church still exercise huge influence. They are often at the forefront of efforts to stop advances in LGBT+ rights. There is little or no evidence that Francis and the Vatican have censured or disciplined them.
And even when in a minority within their own faith, individual homophobic and transphobic Catholics often have a large voice and can do severe damage. Pope Francis, of all people, should know – as we see above, he’s met a few.
In spite of those alliances, Francis himself has recognised the alarming rise in hate-driven populism. Speaking in November 2019, he himself set out why this all matters:
‘I must confess, that when I hear some speeches, some person in charge of order or the government, I am reminded of Hitler’s speeches in 1934 and 1936.
‘They are actions typical of Nazism that, with its persecution of Jews, gypsies and people of homosexual orientation, represent a negative model par excellence of a throwaway culture and hate. That is what happened in that time and today, these things are reappearing.’
Is Pope Francis a homophobe or an ally?
The ultimate question – is Pope Francis an ally or is he homophobic and transphobic will continue to attract debate.
It has taken a while to see the patterns expressed here for a number of reasons. Partly because he has only infrequently engaged on this subject.
But equally because those allowed to interview him tend to be deferential and reverential. They are not willing to challenge him on points of detail. (If you doubt this point, try calling the Vatican press office and saying you work in queer media. Their rudeness is actually comical.)
Certainly, there are faith leaders who are far more viciously and actively opposed to LGBT+ people. And Pope Francis has done more than previous pontiffs to embrace LGBT+ individuals.
His approach is to try to support the wellbeing of people while upholding his interpretation of the Bible and church doctrine.
Sadly, this carries in it an inevitable contradiction. For example when people recognize trans identities or grant same-sex marriage, it is statistically proven this lowers suicide rates, improves mental health and benefits society. Yet, Pope Francis remains implacably opposed to these simple steps.
A decade on, still wedded to doctrine
Understandably, there are many LGBT+ Catholics who desperately want to believe that Francis could help them. Naturally his more positive comments and actions have encouraged them.
But we now have a decade of robust evidence about his views. And the pattern is quite clear.
He balances his positive comments by negative ones – often expressed in aggressive and destructive language.
And throughout his papacy, his fundamental views on marriage, trans rights, gay clergy and personal compassion, remain the same and firmly routed in his doctrinal views. Some hoped to see his attitudes evolve. He has disappointed them.
For all those who want progress, this is, of course, frustrating. Most particularly and hurtfully, for LGBT+ Catholics.
Nobody can fire or replace Pope Francis. While clear messages in support of LGBT+ people and full equality would certainly be shocking to some, they would ultimately cost him nothing. St Peter’s Basilica would still stand and he may even swell the youthful congregations he desires.
However, while efforts to persuade him can and must continue, the evidence so far indicates significant progress is unlikely. Such ambitions are for the birds.