Pope Francis has been lauded for his more respectful approach to LGBT people since he was elected Pope in 2013. He caused a stir when discussing homosexuals in an interview by stating, “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him”. Such a statement stood in stark contrast to his two predecessors whose vocabulary for LGBT people included “intrinsically evil”. Francis’ less damning tone saw him named Person of the Year in LGBT news magazine, The Advocate.
The Vatican then prepared a document for the Synod on the Family in 2014, which contained more compassionate and less judgemental language than past publications under previous Popes. It proposed that homosexuals “have gifts and qualities to offer” and suggested offering them a place in the Christian community. The Bishops at the Synod voted against the inclusion of that part of the document, however, the fact the Vatican tried to use more conciliatory language was seen as encouraging nonetheless.
However, his overtures towards the LGBT community have stopped there. There have been no changes in official Catholic doctrine, which still refers to homosexuality as a sin and “intrinsically disordered”, and opposition to same-sex marriage remains a priority. In fact, there have been no indications of an actual change in policy or tone within the Church other than the two instances above. Pope Francis himself rejected the appointment of an ambassador because he was gay. So much for “who am I to judge”.
The biggest indication that nothing has changed concerning the Pope and Church’s stance on homosexuality came when the Pope visited Uganda recently. Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years. This, seemingly, is not a harsh enough penalty and there have been efforts to introduce a Bill that would make homosexuality punishable by death. The death sentence was subsequently replaced with life imprisonment and the Bill was passed. Thankfully, the Constitutional Court of Uganda ruled the Bill invalid on procedural grounds. Nevertheless, the damage was done. The attempted introduction of the Bill further marginalised and dehumanised Uganda’s LGBT community. It legitimised and encouraged mob violence and attacks on LGBT people increased tenfold. Many now live in hiding, fearing for their lives.
Beyonce Karungi, a transgender activist, went into hiding after receiving multiple threats. When she emerged, she was attacked by five unknown men and ended up in hospital with serious injuries. Another LGBT activist, David Kato, was beaten to death at his home. Kato’s name appeared in a newspaper calling for him, and others suspected of being gay, to be killed. Unfortunately many more examples are all too easy to provide. Such is the homophobic climate in Uganda that newspapers frequently publish the names and images of people who are suspected to be LGBT; often calling for them to be physically harmed or taken to the police.
The Pope had the opportunity to speak out about this persecution and call for the better treatment of LGBT people; To display this apparent “shift in tone”, to exhibit how the Church is, as they claim, non-judgemental, compassionate and caring towards LGBT people. He did not have to say anything that contradicted Catholic teaching, but at the bear minimum he should have addressed the immorality of criminalising and inflicting violence upon LGBT people. Instead, the Pope ignored requests of gay rights activists for a meeting and refused to mention their persecution in any manner. He spent his time visiting a shrine to martyrs to honour people persecuted and killed for their beliefs while being surrounded by people who want to persecute and kill people for who they are. The Pope’s silence on the issue could have easily been interpreted by those persecuting LGBT people as tacit approval. A signal that what they are doing is not wrong if the Pontiff did not see fit to address it while in the country.
It is clear that the Pope’s attitude towards LGBT people has not changed from that of previous Popes. His tone may have slightly altered, but that is mere tone, otherwise known as PR: delivering the same homophobic teachings of the Church but in prettier, more digestible packaging. The whole idea that there was some dramatic shift in attitude was invariably a media overreaction to what was, in reality, quite banal statements. It seems we witnessed a phenomenon where our experience and expectations are so low that any signs of progress, no matter how insignificant, are hailed as a grand achievement. If you look closely at the statements made by the Pope, they barely achieve the minimum standard of human decency yet these statements are given praise; not because they are objectively meritorious in content but simply because it is an ever-so-slight evolution upon previous edicts about LGBT people.
We must stop over interpreting any small gesture as ground-breaking. By doing so we are giving credit where none is warranted and letting the Pope off the hook for continued reprehensible behaviour. Instead we must continue to criticise the Church’s position on LGBT issues and try to get them recognise the horrible, homophobic environment many LGBT people are forced to live under, often due to Christianity. Detrimental harm will continue to be inflicted upon LGBT people if every utterance by the Pope is hailed as progressive simply because it was not an entirely negative statement; LGBT people deserve better than that, much better.