Pope’s mixed messages on LGBTI inclusion

By Savi Hensman
October 4, 2016

Pope Francis has again spoken in favour of a pastoral approach based on “accompanying” people regardless of sexual identity. However, less helpfully, he has also condemned gender theory.

The Roman Catholic and other churches have often been less than welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. The current Pope has tried to foster a more supportive attitude to them as well as to people who have remarried after divorce, while upholding tradition.

When speaking to journalists on a flight on 2 October 2016, he made the point that “marriage is the image of God, man and woman, one flesh”, but also called for mercy.

He said that “in my life as a priest and bishop, even as Pope, I have accompanied people with homosexual tendencies, I have also met homosexual persons, accompanied them, brought them closer to the Lord, as an apostle, and I have never abandoned them. People must be accompanied as Jesus accompanies them, when a person who has this condition arrives before Jesus, Jesus surely doesn't tell them 'go away because you are homosexual.'”

However as in the past, he condemned gender theory, which suggests that people’s gender need not be determined by their biological sex at birth. Some versions of this overestimate fluidity and levels of choice. Yet many people do not easily fit into the roles their society assigns to those who look like them, which anyway vary among cultures.

Even in terms of biology, it is now known that, while a small (though important) minority of people are obviously intersex, many others have some mixture of male and female characteristics. However church leaders have often failed to take such developments into account.

Pope Francis spoke against the “wickedness which today is done in the indoctrination of gender theory.” He described being told by a French father that he “asked his 10-year-old son: 'What do you want to be when you grow up?'- 'a girl.' The father realised that at school they were teaching him gender theory, and this is against the natural things. One thing is that a person has this tendency, this condition and even changes their sex, but it's another thing to teach this in line in schools in order to change the mentality. This is what I call ideological colonisation.”

In reality, a child of 10 who, despite pressure from family and peers, yearns to be recognised as a girl is almost certainly not simply responding to an abstract theory. Parents and pastors do children no favours by failing to take their feelings seriously.

At the same time, the Pope emphasised the value of including transgender people in the life of the church, referring to the occasion when he met a Spanish trans man at the Vatican last year, who as a child had “suffered so much because he felt he felt like a boy, but was physically a girl.” Later “he changed his civil identity, got married and wrote me a letter saying that for him it would be a consolation to come with his wife.”

When a new priest in this man’s neighbourhood saw him, Francis said, “he would yell from the sidewalk: 'you'll go to hell!'” In contrast an old priest “would say: 'How long has it been since you confessed? Come, come, let's go so that I can confess you and you can receive communion.'”

Such matters, in his view, should always be resolved “with the mercy of God.”

Failure to understand may be painful. Yet in the longer term, a theology of accompanying diverse people through life’s complexities opens the door to deepening understanding (through the Holy Spirit, Christians might believe).

And for everyone caught up in debates on sexuality and gender identity, the value of “an open heart”, to use the Pope’s phrase, should be recognised.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.