In a new book published last week in Italy, Pope Francis declared that homosexuals have no place among the Catholic clergy.
“The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates,” the pontiff said in his book, “The Strength of a Vocation.”
“In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the church,” he continued.
The position reinforces one issued by the Church in a 2016 document that declared men who exhibit “homosexual tendencies” or “support the so-called ‘gay culture’” cannot be priests.
None of this is new. The Church has been unambiguous in its position that homosexual acts are sinful, and homosexuality among members of the clergy is forbidden. However, that stance has been muddled by Francis, whose own statements about LGBTQ+ issues have been wildly inconsistent since assuming the papacy in 2013.
Initially, the pontiff signaled a more inclusive tone on homosexuality. He has apologized for the Church’s history of wrongdoings committed against the LGBTQ+ community, and even stated, “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?”
Unfortunately, such compassionate rhetoric has been subverted by statements and actions that continue to ostracize LGBTQ+ people from the Church. Catholic institutions still consistently practice discrimination by firing employees for being openly gay. In 2016, Francis called gender identity education a form of “ideological colonization,” and in a meeting with Italian bishops earlier this year, he urged them to weed out any potential priests suspected of being gay.
For liberal Catholics, such remarks have come as a surprise from the “woke” pope they like to champion as the herald of a new, more progressive Church. While Francis has taken a number of progressive stances on social justice issues, climate change and the rise of authoritarianism, his regressive positions on LGBTQ+ issues have been disappointing.
Francis’ declaration that homosexuality is not compatible with the priesthood reveals a hypocritical double standard. The assumption that gay men cannot remain celibate plays into the offensive stereotype that they are more sexually promiscuous than straight men — one that is upended by the fact that the Church has long turned a blind eye to priests carrying on heterosexual relationships.
It also uncovers an obvious and ugly hypocrisy. In light of the Church’s complicity in covering up decades of child sexual abuse, the targeting of gay priests seems like a cynical distraction from a very real issue that continues to be under-addressed. It also flirts with the insidious conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia, a common homophobic line of attack.
Furthermore, Francis’ dismissive characterization of homosexuality as “fashionable” diminishes it as a frivolous trend — as something that is a choice. It also reveals a desire to force homosexuals back into the closet and deny their identity and right to openly pursue their lives with dignity and pride.
This situation should serve as a reminder that institutions, especially religious ones, don’t change easily or quickly. It’s also important that liberal Catholics acknowledge that Catholic communities in South America, Africa and Asia are more socially conservative than their counterparts in the U.S. and Europe. So while the Church’s position on homosexuality is viewed as regressive in the West, that’s not necessarily the case elsewhere around the world.
Religions are defined by an inherent exclusivity. Dogmas create boundaries that designate who is within and who is without. Over time, those boundaries shift, but if they become too flexible a religion will lose itself entirely. This fear compels those institutions to cling to certain dogmas so tightly it puts them out of step with society at large. While Francis’ fears of bending to whatever is socially fashionable at the moment is understandable for an institution that’s more than 2,000 years old, such intransigence can, as is the case here, perpetuate toxic dogmas that are better off discarded.
For all its faults and past sins, the Catholic Church has a long history of fostering intellectual thought and scholarship. In the modern age, it has embraced science and made room within its boundaries for the theory of evolution; it declared climate change a moral issue; it has even welcomed the prospect of extraterrestrial life.
But there is no longer room within its borders for its flawed and outdated “love the sinner, hate the sin” stance on homosexuality. If we accept that people are born gay — which we do — then hating the sin of homosexuality is tantamount to hating the individual. Such a position is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ, who, through his example, demonstrated unconditional love and compassion by meeting people where they were and loving them as they were.
If the Catholic Church can make room for Darwin, it surely can evolve. It must if it hopes to survive and remain relevant in this century. As attendance continues to dwindle and younger generations increasingly identify as non-religious or non-practicing, the Church must re-examine the dogmas that put it out of step with modern society. That includes building a more inclusive clergy and church community that welcomes people of all sexual orientations and genders. It’s an evolution that can be achieved without betraying core Catholic principles. Indeed, it will only make them stronger.