It wasn’t that long ago the then leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, described homosexuality as “demonstrably harmful” and the then Pope, Benedict XVI, described it as “objectively disordered”. For those of us who are Catholics, those were dark days when we were being condemned and vilified, while clerical abuse of children was being swept under the carpet.
Keith O’Brien had to resign in 2013 when his own homosexual liaisons were exposed. In the same year Benedict was replaced as Pope by Francis, who immediately set a new more open and liberal tone. Church dogma has not changed, but there is now a greater emphasis on humility, pastoral care and understanding, rather than condemnation. He famously said: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” He also said LGBT people “should be integrated into society.”
From the moment he became Pope, Francis dispensed with many of the trappings of the papacy and has continued to do so. He has begun to address key scandals within the Church, including clerical sexual abuse. He also set up a synod on the family: prior to the synod meeting, and for the first time in living memory (possibly the first time ever) the Pope insisted on every Catholic throughout the world having the opportunity to express their opinions on what is meant by the family, as well as being asked questions on issues such as homosexuality, contraception, divorce and abortion. As with other controversies Francis has tackled, the results were mixed and no dogma has changed. However, the atmosphere within the Church is very different than it was under Benedict XVI and John Paul II.
In the context of the Latin American Zika crisis, Francis also suggested that the use of barrier contraception could be permissable. What he actually said in Mexico was that contraception was the lesser of two evils, the major “evil” being abortion. While none of these statements changes official Catholic rules, they do indicate a change in focus. Francis, following the example of Jesus Christ, refuses to condemn those who find themselves at odds with dogma. Francis, again like Jesus, reserves his condemnations for those he calls hypocrites: those who claim to oppose poverty but live in luxury, those who believe themselves holier than others, those who condemn others rather than looking at their own faults.
It is no accident that many of Francis’ most profound statements have occurred during Lent, a period when Christians reflect on their own shortcomings and look at ways of helping others.
This new era of openness has now taken another, and surprising, step forward, and again during Lent. The Scottish Catholic Observer (SCO), in the past noted for its conservatism, has interviewed a high profile – possibly the highest profile – Catholic UK LGBT activist: Ruth Hunt, who is CEO of Stonewall, and the former head of the organisation’s Scottish branch. Not only that, the interview was friendly and allowed Ruth to have her say without any accompanying negative comments. As the SCO’s journalist Ian Dunn wrote: “The head of Stonewall is not someone you would expect to find in the pages of The Scottish Catholic Observer.” Quite.
In the interview Ruth made clear she saw no contradiction between being gay and being a Catholic, saying: “There are many LGBT people of faith…To think in terms of binaries and opposites is not helpful.” Speaking of her own faith, she said: “I believe it (the Catholic church) is where Christ is most accurately reflected. I feel at home there…” The interview ends with her saying: “The rights of LGBT people don’t get in the way of people of faith who practice their faith.”
The interview, even more than any of Pope Francis’s pronouncements, underlines the cultural change that is undeniably taking place. Such an interview would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. Could it be that LGBT activists and the Roman Catholic Church are finding ways of working together, even finding areas of agreement?
This new era of openness appears to be bearing fruit. Indeed perhaps, in the words of Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’.