The Pope's anti-gay insults expose the contradictions of the Church

When news broke that Pope Francis had used an offensive anti-gay slur while speaking to Italian bishops at a conference last month, many Catholics were shocked and dismayed. How could a pope known for his openness and acceptance of LGBTQ people use homophobic jargon and warn prelates against allowing gay men into seminaries?

But the question, and the apparent inconsistency in Francis' message, reflect the profound contradictions and tensions that underlie the Roman Catholic Church's and Francis' relationship with homosexuality.

The Church maintains that “homosexual tendencies” are “intrinsically disordered.” When it comes to ordination, church guidelines state that people with “deep-rooted” gay tendencies should not become priests.

Yet ordination has also long been a kind of refuge for gay Catholic men, according to researchers and priests, who say that at least thousands of priests are gay, though only a few make their sexual orientation public because of the stigma attached to it. he still carries with him. the church.

While in the past all these contradictions were muffled by an aura of taboo, Francis' recent spontaneous comments have brought them into the open.

“The Pope has lifted the veil,” said Francesco Lepore, a former employee of the Vatican's Latin department who left the church, came out as gay and became an activist.

The issue is layered by long-standing prejudices, and the sexual abuse crisis that emerged two decades ago has inflamed accusations from some bishops and conservative church media that homosexuality was to blame, even as studies have repeatedly found that there is no connection between being gay and abuse. minors.

Despite evolutions in society and Francis' adoption of a more progressive approach, the Church's teachings still describe homosexuality as a deviance and have enshrined that view in regulations and restrictions that critics say perpetuate a widespread view homophobic and fuel tensions.

“As long as they don't change the law, as long as homosexuality is seen as a deviance and an illness, nothing will change under the dome of St. Peter's,” said Luciano Tirinnanzi, author of a book on LGBTQ people and the Church.

Yet the presence of gay clergy has been a constant throughout history. Saint Peter Damian, an 11th century monk, fought against the “sins of sodomy” in the church. Dante Alighieri punished gay clerics by throwing them into hell in his “Divine Comedy”, and there are documented cases dating back to the 16th century of prelates accused of carrying out homosexual acts and killed. (There are also abundant testimonies of priests, and even cardinals and popes, who were immodest with women and even had children).

Academics and prelates who promote LGBTQ rights have said that for gay Catholic men, becoming a priest has long been seen as a way to neutralize and overcome the stigma once associated with their sexual orientation, and perhaps even suppress it through celibacy.

“A large number of young religious men with homosexual tendencies sought the sublimation of celibacy,” said Alberto Melloni, an Italian church historian.

It's difficult to know exactly how many priests are gay, as no reliable statistics exist, but in the United States, gay men probably make up at least 30 to 40 percent of American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates by researchers and researchers. gay priests gathered in a 2019 New York Times investigation. Some priests and activists say the figure is closer to 75%.

“The Catholic Church would not be able to operate without its gay priests,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that supports gay Catholics. “This is a simple fact.”

But this is also something that many in the Church are uncomfortable with.

Last month, Francis said there was already too much homosexuality, although he used a pejorative to describe it, according to two bishops who attended the conference and confirmed Italian media reports that triggered the Vatican's apology. When asked about Francis' use of the insult, the bishops placed blame on Francis's relaxed and colorful conversational style.

“When there are official speeches he studies, but when he speaks off the cuff even a less than ideal word can escape,” said Luigi Mansi, bishop of the Italian city of Andria. Bishop Francesco Savino, vice president of the Italian Bishops' Conference, blamed it on the fact that Francis is not a native Italian speaker. “When he speaks he uses terms that are a mix of Spanish, Argentine, Italian,” he said.

Yet despite the surprising use of the insult, it is not the first time Francis has reflected the Church's opposition to the entry of homosexual men into ministry.

While acknowledging that many homosexual priests are good and holy, Francis has repeatedly expressed concern that homosexual candidates for the priesthood could end up having affairs and living double lives.

In another closed-door session in 2018, reported by Italian media, he said that men with “deep-rooted” homosexual tendencies should not be allowed to enter seminaries.

Two years earlier, the pope had given the green light to a document on priestly vocations that stated precisely the same thing, echoing a 2005 document approved by Benedict XVI.

The clergy interpreted these instructions in different ways. The Church says “homosexual men should not be admitted to orders,” said Piero Delbosco, bishop of Cuneo, Italy, adding that there may be some leeway in determining whether a candidate could overcome homosexual tendencies.

Others, like Monsignor Mansi, say that “the Church does not say that gay people cannot be ordained.” But, he added, the Church believes ordination should be avoided because it is more difficult for gay men “to observe and live celibate throughout their lives.” Experts and prelates who promote LGBTQ rights strongly deny this claim.

“There are three ways this is interpreted,” said the Rev. James Martin, a high-profile supporter of the goal of making the Church more welcoming to gay Catholics. Either it is no to homosexual seminarians, or to people who cannot maintain celibacy, or no to anyone for whom this is the most important thing in their life, he said.

Francis' message only added to the confusion, some said.

“He needs to clarify his message a little better because it gets confusing,” DeBernardo said. “It doesn't help the situation. It problematizes the situation.”

The confusion, critics say, blurs the line between celibacy and homosexuality, shifting attention from a legitimate concern about priests who are not chaste to a general stigmatization of all gay clergy. This, they say, can lead to some potentially celibate gay men being barred from ordination, and many others simply hiding their sexuality.

The Italian Bishops' Conference has adopted new rules that specifically concern the ordination of gay priests in Italy, Monsignor Savino said. The rules, awaiting approval by the Vatican, are not yet public.

Pope Francis' use of the insult was motivated by a question from an Italian bishop on the issue, the bishops said.

The topic of homosexuality, said Monsignor Savino, is “highly debated” at the moment, as bishops with a more “pragmatic” and “dynamic” approach would like to update the rules. But progressive pushes within the Church often face backlash and prejudice.

Francis must perform a delicate balancing act between a message of openness and inclusiveness, while recognizing the more conservative sensibilities of the Church which remains staunchly anti-gay.

When Francis allowed priests to bless same-sex couples last year, some bishops in more conservative corners of the Church objected. To appease them, the Vatican issued a statement saying that “local culture” would have to be taken into account when it came to applying the declaration, but that it would remain Church policy.

When interviewed on this topic, some bishops called homosexuality a “pathological” condition, a “problem,” or used expressions such as “normal sexuality” to refer to heterosexuality as opposed to homosexuality.

Church guidelines that refer to “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” are also “offensive,” Lepore said, because they convey the message that homosexuality can be transitory, healed and overcome.

He added that Francis' effective opening messages would inevitably be undermined if the Church's teachings and much of the clergy continued to consider homosexuality a disorder and not a sexual orientation.

“The difficulties, the splits that the Church experiences,” he said. “Everything comes from there.”

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