Why the Pope’s Statements on Homosexuality Aren’t As Groundbreaking As You Thought

Yesterday, the media was awash in headlines like this one:
 

“BREAKTHROUGH: POPE OK WITH GAYS”

 
That headline from the Huffington Post homepage was hardly atypical. 220 news stories trumpeted the supposed shift in stance, while progressives and LGBT supporters celebrated and crowed on social media. All of it was in response to remarks made by Pope Francis in an informal press conference convened aboard his flight back from Rio Di Janeiro yesterday morning.
 

“If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.”

 
“[W]ho am I to judge them?” was a phrase that made it’s way into more than one headline, suggesting, perhaps, a far more radical shift in policy than the Pope’s words actually indicated. It should be noted first of all (as some news outlets have failed to) that Pope Francis’s comments were made specifically in response to a question about gay priests. Put another way, the Pope was referring specifically to a group of men who are, regardless of sexual orientation, theoretically celibate. Or, to use the terminology used by certain commentators, men who may have “homosexual tendencies” but who are not “practicing homosexuals.”
 

Which puts these comments more in line with the Catholic Church’s official policy on homosexuality than headlines like the Huffington Post’s might suggest. According to AmericanCatholic.org:
 

“The Catholic Church opposes gay marriage and the social acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex relationships, but teaches that homosexual persons deserve respect, justice and pastoral care.”

 
That statement, incidentally, was made during the tenure of Pope John Paul II. So the acceptance of gay people, as long as they don’t do gay things (accepting the Lord and having good will might be a nicer way of saying this) is hardly new. To be clear, the Catholic Church still actively opposes same sex marriage and teaches that gay sex and other “homosexual behavior” are “always violations of divine and natural law.” In short, if you’re planning a same sex wedding, you probably won’t be able to call on the local priest to officiate anytime soon.
 
All of that being said, the power of the Pope’s statement shouldn’t be ignored. The comments have frequently and accurately been described as a “shift in tone.” For proof of that, look no further back than the words of the still-living Pope Benedict XVI.
 

“[A]lthough the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

 
Read carefully, it’s clear that Benedict and Francis’s words are both derived from the same policy described by AmericanCatholic.org. Benedict, however, puts a strong emphasis on “moral evil” and “objective disorders,” relegating homosexuals to disease and immorality. Francis, however, puts the emphasis on acceptance and brotherhood. Even if the official policies he supports might have the opposite affect, the change in rhetoric does matter. Support for the LGBT community is as much about changing individual attitudes and fighting personal prejudices as it is about legal and legislative victories like the recent Supreme Court ruling on DOMA. In such a struggle, words matter, maybe more than anything else. The ones Francis has chosen to use to talk about the issue are a welcome change from the uglier language of his predecessors.
 
Photo from NBC.

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