Marianne Duddy-Burke, Executive Director
If I had any doubt about the power of the Papal pulpit, it disappeared in the days following Pope Francis’ post-World Youth Day onboard press conference in which he addressed a reporter’s question on a “gay lobby” in the Vatican. There was truly global focus on the Pope’s responses, which included, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" and a statement that gay people should not be marginalized. China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia were among the many, many places that DignityUSA’s reaction to this statement was quoted!
A few moments on a plane have had tremendous repercussions, and many continue to wonder about the ongoing impact of the Pope’s remarks. Naturally, we question what this may mean for DignityUSA and our allies. Here are a few reflections, now that the Pope’s comments have had some time to reverberate.
The Importance of the Pope’s Use of “gay.” The changes in culture that the LGBT movement has achieved have made their way to the Vatican! A Pope who comes to Peter’s throne from a public ministry brings a different sensibility than someone elevated from a Vatican office. He has lived in the “real world” and has had more exposure to the dramatic turnaround in the lives of most LGBT people. Can we assume that he has had openly LGBT friends and colleagues, and has witnessed the kinds of lives we lead as he went about his pastoral duties? Will this personal experience create the kind of dissonance with Church teaching that we have seen lead to conversion among many?
The Official vs. the Popular Response. I received the first media call about the Pope’s comments at 7:45 am on a Monday morning. The phone did not stop ringing until 10:40 pm, and there were times I had six reporters waiting for responses. On Tuesday morning, on my way home from a TV studio where I had made a live appearance on Canada’s national morning news show, I heard that Cardinal Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), was making the rounds of the US morning shows. His message was that the Pope simply reiterated official Church teaching, and all the hoopla was misplaced. This tone was echoed in numerous statements issued by bishops in the ensuing hours. But, as so often happens, Catholics and other people of faith heard the Pope very differently from Church officials. Countless people found something positive in these comments. For most, it was significant to have the Pope recognize us as people of faith and good will, and to affirm our place in society. There is power in the fact that so many found this so uplifting and liberating. The bishops saw the need to negate that power and to do so rapidly. The bishops also did not want people to dwell on why these simple words that, really, simply acknowledge basic human dignity were received with such immense gratitude, marking as they did a radical departure from the dehumanizing rhetoric of our two most recent Popes. To examine the pain caused by decades of being demeaned and demonized would bring unwelcome attention to the unchristian way our leaders have treated us for too long.
Around the same time the Pope made his comments, the USCCB sent a letter to the Senate Committee reviewing ENDA, the bill that would provide employment protections for LGBT people in many workplaces. They strongly condemned ENDA as an endorsement of immoral behavior, even though the law protects people on the basis of identity, not relationship status. Our bishops’ positions like this become even more appalling in light of the tone taken by the Pope, and I’m sure the bishops don’t want that mirror to be held up.
No Change in Policy. Pope Francis reiterated official Church policy on a number of issues, including same-sex relationships and the ordination of women. This disappointed some, and was a source of vindication to others. To me, this is a clear sign that the work in which we are so intensely engaged remains critically important. Barriers to full equality and to God’s people benefitting from the gifts of all members of the human community remain, and we must continue to dismantle them. We cannot rely on any member of the Church hierarchy to do this work; it is the work of the people.
So let us see Pope Francis’ words as a glint of light in a dark space, illuminating a path forward. Let us gravitate to the glow, and continue to crack open the walls that keep people in shadow, in fear, and in confusion. And let us also remember that we, too, are bearers of light, a light that is clear, warm, comforting, and pure. This light is just as bright, if not brighter, than the light the Pope has brought, so “let it shine before all, so they may see the good that you do and give glory to God.” (Matthew 5:16)