Faith Matters

Pope Francis signals respect, not condemnation, for gay people

Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has made several overtures to gay people, but none have been more pronounced than his comments in the documentary film Francesco, writes Diarmuid Pepper

Pope Francis, pictured wearing a face mask as he arrived to attend an inter-religious ceremony for peace in Rome last week, has caused controversy with his comments about same-sex civil unions. Picture by AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

THE documentary, which features interviews with Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI and a range of senior Vatican figures, premiered at the Rome Film Festival last week.

Comments by Pope Francis in the film immediately made news headlines around the world.

"Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They are children of God and have a right to a family," he said.

"Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.

"What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered."

While some in the secular world rolled their eyes at what they see as a lukewarm sentiment, it is difficult to underscore just how seismic this statement is in the context of Catholic teaching.

For many in the Western world, the Pope's words will be nothing more than the bare minimum from a moral authority they put little or no weight in.

But it is important to remember that the LGBT community does not have the same rights in many parts of the world that it has here and elsewhere.

In Uganda, for example, a bill known locally as 'kill the gays' was resurrected in October last year, having been nullified several years earlier.

The country's Ethics and Integrity Minister said the current penal law is "limited" and he that he wanted it "made clear that anyone who is even involved in promotion [of homosexuality] has to be criminalised" and "those that do grave acts will be given the death sentence".

Forty per cent of Ugandans are Catholic; the Pope's comments may not be particularly revolutionary for people in the Western world, but they will offer immense sustenance to the gay community in Uganda.

In Francesco, a new documentary about his ministry, Pope Francis supports same-sex civil unions - a departure from official Vatican teaching

In Poland, birthplace of Pope John Paul II, some towns have declared themselves as being 'LGBT-free zones' amid increasing demonization by the Polish government.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski is the leader of Poland's governing Law and Justice Party. He is a former prime minister and is the current deputy prime minister.

Homosexuality, he says, is "a threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence".

Given that a huge 87 per cent of Poland's population is Catholic, Pope Francis's words take on immense significance.

Of course, this is far from the first time that Pope Francis has adopted a welcoming tone on same-sex issues.

At the very beginning of his papacy, an Italian journalist asked Pope Francis what he would say to a gay person who was seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The Pope responded: "If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person?"

Since then, his remarks have more forceful. In 2016, he reinforced the Church's teaching that gay people should be respected.

But he has gone further than this, saying the Church should apologise for the harm it has caused: "We Christians have to apologise for so many things, not just for this [treatment of gay people], but we must ask for forgiveness, not just apologise."

While some in the secular world rolled their eyes at what they see as a lukewarm sentiment, it is difficult to underscore just how seismic Pope Francis's statement is in the context of Catholic teaching 

During his visit to Ireland in August 2018, the Pope was asked what advice he would give to the parent of a gay child.

"Don't condemn; dialogue, understand, make space for them, let them express themselves," he said.

"Silence is never a remedy. To ignore a son or daughter who is homosexual is a lack of paternity and maternity.

"You are my son or daughter as you are; I'm your father, mother... let's talk."

In 2018, a survivor of clerical sexual abuse had a private audience with Pope Francis.

Juan Carlos Cruz suffered at the hands of one of Chile's most notorious paedophiles.

But because he is gay, some bishops in Chile portrayed Juan as a "liar" and a "pervert".

He raised the issue with Pope Francis when they met. Afterwards, he said: "He told me, 'Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter. God made you like this and loves you like this and I don't care.

"The Pope loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are."

The Catholic Church is an institution that moves slowly.

While the Pope's comments may not mean much to some, try telling Juan Carlos or gay people in Uganda and Poland that his words hold no weight.

The Pope is sending a stark message to the Church in Uganda and Poland and throughout the world that the gay community should be given respect, not condemnation.

Diarmuid Pepper is a broadcast journalist with Northern Sound News who previously worked as a Philosophy and Religious Studied teacher.

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