Welcome the Papal Apology. What Next?

We must warmly welcome Pope Francis’ apology to gay Catholics, for the harm done to them by the Church:

Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Yerevan, Armenia, to Rome June 26. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Yerevan, Armenia, to Rome June 26. (CNS/Paul Haring)

In a press conference Sunday on the flight back to Rome after his weekend trip to Armenia, the pontiff said bluntly: “The church must say it’s sorry for not having comported itself well many times, many times.”

“I believe that the church not only must say it’s sorry … to this person that is gay that it has offended,” said the pope. “But it must say it’s sorry to the poor, also, to mistreated women, to children forced to work.”

“When I say the church: Christians,” Francis clarified. “The church is healthy. We are the sinners.”

“Who are we to judge them?” he asked, reframing his famous phrase from 2013 into the plural. “We must accompany well — what the Catechism says. The Catechism is clear.”

Initial reaction from the people most affected, gay and lesbian people themselves, illustrates how badly this apology was needed – there is a tone of bitterness in many responses that reveals the extent of the hurt. This is understandable. In many respects, it is indeed too little, too late.

However, as Frank DeBenardo points out at Bondings 2.0, a formal apology from the head of the Church, no matter how limited, will itself bring a degree of healing, putting into practice Francis’ vision of the Church as a “field hospital for the wounded”. There have been earlier, similar apologies from the German language small group at the family synod, and from the English bishops attending, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Bishop Peter Doyle. This clear signal from the man at the top will undoubtedly encourage many of their colleagues to follow suit.

For these reasons, I fervently welcome this apology, limited though it is.

Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of what is still needed.

We need recognition from the Church that gay and lesbian Catholics have not been simply “offended” – but in many cases severely damaged by the Church’s responses. This is illustrated by the high rates of suicide, self-harm, substance abuse and other mental health problems and internalised homophobia and self-hatred in many lesbian and gay people. The dangers of such self-hatred are clear from numerous examples of closeted gay men expressing their anger in acts of violence or murder.

We need recognition from the Church that the hurt and damage are not simply the result of careless and insensitive language, but are deeply embedded in formal Catholic teaching on sexuality, with its numerous internal contradictions on sexual ethics for gay men and lesbians. The Church claims that we need to “respect” the findings of science, and has accommodated these findings as they apply to the physical universe, and to evolution – but has conspicuously ignored any insights from physical or social science into matters of sexuality or gender identity.

We need recognition from the Church that the hurt and damage is not just historic – it continues today, both in the Church’s own documents, and in the profound damage done in parts of Africa. Catholic doctrine is clear: all violence against gay or lesbian Catholics should be condemned

It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.

(CDF, Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986, para. 10)

Some African bishops tragically do the opposite, and instead encourage harsh criminal sanctions against homosexuals, which contributes immeasurably to popular homophobia and actual violence against gay men and women.

We need recognition from the Church that the hurt and harm perpetrated by the Church applies not only to gay men and lesbians, but also to transgender people, who continue to be damaged by the gender paranoia displayed by many bishops, and in the documents of the Family Synod and “Amoris Laetitia”, with its inaccurate labelling and condemnation of academic gender theory as “gender ideology”.

So, much much more is still needed.

However, we must recognise and value the enormous step that this in fact represents, in moving away from the practices of the past. A process of reconciliation has begun. It is now appropriate for LGBT Catholics to accept this in good spirit – and to engage ever more vigorously with their local bishops and pastors, to encourage an acceleration in the process, leading to ever increasingly emphatic welcome and inclusion in church.

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