They may be incomplete, and they may not, within his lifetime, lead to measurable change within the Catholic Church, but, nonetheless, Pope Francis’s comments endorsing civil unions for gay people represent a profound shift in the church’s position on homosexuality, made by one of the most influential men in the world.
In a sense, the need to belong is one of the most powerful factors motivating people to join a religion, or stay in the faith they inherited from their fathers and mothers. It is a fundamental need unmet for generations of LGBTI+ people.
We haven’t just been left outside, denied genuine involvement in the family. We have been present, but enjoined to silence about the reality of our lives.
Not since the early days of our faith had ordinary people moved so decisively away from, and in advance of, hierarchical thinking
When, coming out in 2015, I wrote a piece for this paper in advance of the marriage equality referendum, I did so fearfully, knowing my Catholic family could not have failed to hear the Catholic catechism’s description of homosexuals as “objectively disordered” and their love “intrinsically evil”.
I was so grateful when the Irish people overwhelmingly voted in favour of the referendum. The sense of truly belonging in the wider family that is Ireland was profound and, for the moment, it was enough. It carried life-changing significance for individuals, heart-opening possibilities for families and a culture-transformative direction for our nation.
What most of us may have underestimated, dazed as we were by the marvellous decision made by so many of us, was that the faithful, for perhaps the first time in 18 centuries of church history, were showing leadership to the hierarchy. Not since the early days of our faith had ordinary people moved so decisively away from, and in advance of, hierarchical thinking.
The referendum could not have been passed were it not for the votes of believers, many of whom probably knew their own courage but perhaps underestimated their own impact. None of us, on that sunny day when joy was unconfined in the quadrangle at Dublin Castle, could ever have imagined a pope endorsing same-sex unions in the way Pope Francis has done this week, saying “homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God.”
Nobody could have imagined it because the church gave every indication of affirming at every available point its doctrinal view of “homosexuality” as an intrinsic evil.
Two years ago when the World Meeting of Families was held in the RDS Dublin, I stood outside the gates with a rainbow choir, specially assembled for the occasion, to protest at the exclusion of LGBTI families from the event. Those organising the global meeting had been provided with many opportunities to include us.
There is absolutely no ambiguity. None, not a smidgeon
They ignored us. We were to be as absent as I had been from the family of the church for three-quarters of my life. Right down to not having a stand explaining our role within the church. Hear no intrinsic evil, see no intrinsic evil . . .
It was infinitely painful to me as a believer, as a committed Catholic, to be excluded, as were all LGBTI+ Catholic families excluded, from an occasion that purported to celebrate all that is good about family.
The rainbow choir gathered and we sang and some of us wept. We wept at the caricature that continued to be presented by the powers that be within the church, when the faithful, it seemed to us, had long moved beyond that caricature.
Outdated church view
Now, it would appear that one man at the top of all of that prejudice, all of that discrimination, all of that stereotyping and contempt and condemnation, is prepared to reject the extension into civil society of that outdated church view. (Indeed, it would seem he was prepared to reject it more than a year ago as the comments are reported to come from an interview recorded last year.)
By taking such a stand, Pope Frances is emphatically contradicting the position of his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his capacity as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, promoted the view in a 2003 document that the church could never approve of homosexual behaviour or legal recognition for homosexual unions.
This week, Pope Francis did precisely what Ratzinger had sought to prohibit. There is no nuance whatsoever in the pope’s words when he says: “What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”
Pope Francis has often spoken off the cuff, sometimes carelessly and ambiguously on the subject of homosexuality, raising hopes only for them to be dashed by Vatican retraction. This is different. There is absolutely no ambiguity. None, not a smidgeon. He really has lit a touch-paper that will set off a conflagration in certain resistant quarters in the church.
But documentaries can be dismissed. Handcrafted documents shaping the policy and thinking of the church cannot be so dismissed. We have to hope that the pope, as the supreme legislative authority in the Catholic Church, will follow up his first and welcome challenging of generations of cruel contempt and exclusion with a document that sets out the implications of his comments for Catholic teaching.
Ursula Halligan is a member of We Are Church Ireland