A few years ago, I attended a Vatican event on assignment with my late friend Peter Kavanagh, a lawyer, CBC producer and the co-author of my book Suffer the Children unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Abuse Scandal. Peter had arrived via Frankfurt and told me that, while he was waiting for his luggage, he overheard a conversation between a middle-aged woman from California and a Lufthansa pilot. In Peter’s telling, she was flirting and being quite forward with him, but the pilot managed to disclose that he was a practising Catholic and that he was married, with a husband. Dumbfounded, she asked how that could be possible. He responded: “In the eyes of the state, I am married. In the eyes of my church, I am not. But that is a conversation between my church and me.”
Years later, in Francesco, a new film by Russian documentarian Evgeny Afineevsky, the Pope himself takes up that pilot’s conversation. Francis, “the pope of surprises,” has returned to a legal and moral issue he has addressed previously: the entitlement of gay couples to a civil union that provides all the economic and social benefits of marriage. They are “children of God,” he declares in the film, and they “have a right to be part of a family.”
He has said this before, and indeed, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he lobbied the Argentine government proposing civil union as an acceptable legal but not ecclesial alternative to same-sex marriage legislation. So this is not new territory for him. But coming so soon after the publication of his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, which argues for justice and solidarity in a time of political turbulence and the ascendancy of authoritarian parties, his statements take on additional potency.
John Montague, a retired Toronto-based psychotherapist and gay Catholic, told me in an interview that Francis’s words in the documentary represent “one small step for the gay community and one giant step for the papacy.” The reason for this lies in their tone and emphasis; trying to negotiate a strategy that acknowledges civil priorities while at the same time preserving the exclusive integrity of heterosexual unions is one thing, but refocusing on the primacy of the pastoral is quite another.
And that is what Papa Bergoglio does regularly – privilege the pastoral over the doctrinal, the canonical, the established convention. The church is, as he has said on previous occasions, “a field hospital” – a messy place where the broken gather for solace, the maimed are healed, the abandoned embraced. This is the heart of the Francis papacy.
Gay people are the subjects of ruthless persecution in Russia and various post-Soviet states, in numerous political jurisdictions in Africa and in a wide array of religious communities, so words of affirmation from the Pope are welcome. Homophobia is a hydra, sometimes egregious in its expression, but more often subtle.
I recall one incident, from my days on the executive of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities of Canada. My colleagues and I met with the papal nuncio – effectively the Vatican’s ambassador to Canada – for dinner and conversation in his sumptuous residence. Courteous, inquiring and engaging, he welcomed us to an open evening of chat and his preferred beverage. One of his staff, whom we subsequently dubbed Monsignor Rottweiler, had a somewhat less cordial approach; he admonished us for presiding over institutions that were awash in homoerotic libertinism. We were stunned. For those of us at the table where the crazed monsignor fulminated, this was more than unsettling. It was an irrational eruption of bile, and I never personally experienced its like again.
But it gives proof of the subterranean stream of Catholic malcontents who are fearful that their church is being suborned from within by papal perfidy. They persist in seeing any softening of stand toward gays as an accommodation with fin-de-siècle decadence, corroding the very soul of the church. Francis has failed in their eyes to be the vigilant gatekeeper; on the contrary, he is opening the door. They are among his most virulent detractors.
And they are right, in a way. He is opening the door – but not because he is dissolute or weak but because he understands that the way of compromise is the way of understanding, of entering into meaningful reciprocity, of building on the recognition of our shared human dignity. The Other is Us.
In 2019, Pope Francis remarked to the gay British comedian Stephen K. Amos, who was in Rome for a BBC documentary, that discriminating against gays because of their sexuality was to misplace the emphasis, choosing the adjective “gay” over the noun or person. “There are people that prefer to select or discard people because of the adjective," he said. "These people don’t have a human heart.” We are some distance here from Monsignor Rottweiler.
To be clear, Francis has not changed Catholic doctrine. He has not tampered with the traditional understanding of the sacraments; he has not jettisoned canon law.
In the Afineevsky film, he only does what he has consistently done – eschew judgment (“Who am I to judge?” he famously said in an interview aboard a plane) and side with the marginalized and misunderstood, whether they’re the refugees on the island of Lampedusa or the victims of failed justice.
As Mr. Montague astutely observed to me, of this first Jesuit pope: “Ignatian or Jesuit spirituality has enabled him to remain detached from concern over his personal comfort, as he experiences peace while speaking truth.”
This content is published with the permission of The Globe and Mail and originally appeared on October 22, 2020. Source: Pope Francis sparks revolutionary love, yet again – this time for gay people