In “Just Good Friends” lesbian feminist theologian Elizabeth Stuart compares responses to sexuality and gender to a football match where LGBT people are the spectators. She suggests when liberal players get the ball they stand in the middle unable to decide which goal to aim for: they want to maintain church unity while offering a degree of support to us. This often results in liberals disappointing everyone.
This was the fate of Rowan Williams, the liberal Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. His 1989 address to the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement “The Body’s Grace” was broadly supportive of us. He referred to the damage done by those who insist upon heterosexuality as the ideal and suggested reproductive sex was not the norm either in society or in the Bible.
When he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, many LGBT Christians, including those of us who are not Anglicans, celebrated. However his attempts to reconcile differences within Anglicanism led to him being criticised by both conservatives and LGBT activists. After his tenure little had changed. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2014 he admitted that LGBT friends felt he had let them down. He told the reporter: “There are friendships that have been really damaged.”
No-one should doubt the sincerity of Rowan Williams: he really did want to make a difference. But, as is so often the case with liberals, he could appreciate the concerns of conservatives and, in attempting to keep them on board so as to maintain a semblance of unity, gave the ball away.
Comparisons are always dangerous. The centralised structure of the Roman Catholic Church is very different from the devolved one of the Anglican communion, and prior to his elevation to the papacy Francis had always been clear on his opposition to same sex marriage and partnerships.
Nonetheless, Pope Francis is perceived as a liberal and in the brief time he has been pope the Catholic Church has become more open in every conceivable way. Under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI secrecy was the norm, scandals were swept under the carpet and dissident theologians, clerics and commentators were either silenced or disciplined (or both, as was the case with Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian Dominican priest whose 1971 work “A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation” is often cited as the starting point of liberation theology).
Francis’ very first act as pope heralded a welcome change: he came on the balcony of St Peter’s without the fancy ostentatious clothing normally favoured by popes. He also made it clear he wasn’t interested in all the expensive trappings of the papacy, preferring to live more simply. Since that first day he has begun to sort out the Vatican bank scandals, taken a firm stance on clerical abuse of children and has encouraged debate on even the most contentious issues. In July 2013 he famously said: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
He became the first pope in my lifetime to initiate consultations with laity: every Catholic in the world – all 1.2 billion of us – were invited to complete a questionnaire about the family, sexuality, contraception and similar issues. This was followed by a bishops’ synod. Sadly, Francis then found himself facing similar problems to those of Rowan Williams. The eventual synod report was something of a fudge and the pope complained of “conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints and closed hearts which frequently hide behind the church’s teachings.” There was a little movement on divorced Catholics and even less on homosexuality: although it condemned unjust discrimination, it reaffirmed the Church’s traditional stance.
Francis says and writes a lot about mercy. His recent book “The Name of God is Mercy” takes the form of Francis answering questions from Italian journalist Andrea Tournielli. Asked about his “who am I to judge” statement, Francis replies he “was paraphrasing the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it says people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalised.” He urges us to “…come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show good will, show them the way…” He also says we should not be “defined only by our sexual tendencies”.
There is much in this and elsewhere in the book to be welcomed. All of Francis’ statements about LGBT people (and about other marginalised groups) demonstrate a clear change in focus, and in emphasis, when compared to his predecessors. All of us who are Catholic and either lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender should now feel more at home in our church than at any time in the past.
However, the emphasis on mercy remains problematic while Catholic doctrine still condemns us as being “objectively disordered”. As a Catholic I do of course believe that I am in need of God’s mercy; that isn’t because I am gay, it is because I am human. In reiterating the words of the Catechism, Francis is in effect stating that my sexuality places me more in need of mercy than my heterosexual colleagues. His mention of confession is ambiguous: does he expect us to confess our sexuality as a sin? If so, he will be disappointed. In the confessional I will ask forgiveness for lots of things, but loving and being married to another man won’t be one of them.
I welcome the foundations Francis has laid, but the house has yet to be built.