Pope Francis shows it’s okay to say ‘gay’

Pope Francis reached out to gays, saying he won’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a news conference Monday. … Continued

Pope Francis reached out to gays, saying he won’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a news conference Monday. (AP)

In becoming quite possibly the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to utter publicly the word “gay,” Pope Francis showed again Monday that he understands the power of words. His comments to journalists on the plane home from World Youth Day both are, and are not, a break from precedent.

History is littered with epithets used abusively by some groups toward others, words which have so wounded souls that today they are considered not just inappropriate, but hateful and malicious. Some groups have been able to reclaim the words of their abusers, while for others, the indignity of being called—of being reduced to—inescapably pejorative language can be rectified only when those slurs fall, silent, into disuse.

All this reminds us that language has the power to wound, as well as the power to heal. It has become a basic rule of civility to name people with the words by which they wish to be called. This has come to be seen as a powerful way of respecting the identities and, fundamentally, the dignity of others. It was this rule that Pope Francis put calmly into practice.

For decades, Vatican documents have almost unfailingly refused to refer to gay men and women as anything other than “homosexual persons.” These documents have condemned as sinful their “homosexual acts” and labeled their “inclination” an “objective disorder,” while also maintaining that they “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

Few gay men and lesbians choose to call themselves “homosexual persons”; perhaps even fewer would describe their sexual behaviors as “homosexual acts.” Much of the reason is that within large segments of the LGBT community, the words “homosexual” and “homosexuality” appear to have clinical, pathological overtones. The word “homosexual” made its debut in English in 1892, in a translation of a German work that included homosexuality on a list of varieties of sexual perversion. “Heterosexual” appeared around the same time, but originally referred to another kind of mental disorder, one where “a patient exhibited both male erotic attractions to females and female erotic attractions to males.” It was only later that it assumed its modern meaning, although what we now refer to as heterosexuality has been privileged for much longer than that.

For decades, homosexuality was stigmatized as a form of mental illness in the United States, and it is still considered criminal in many parts of the world. Many gay men and lesbians, not to mention their straight allies, have seen the Vatican’s use of words like “homosexual” as part of a rhetorical and theological strategy to portray heterosexuality as normative and treat other forms of human sexuality as deficient or perverse. Indeed, in the few instances when Vatican documents have used the word “gay,” they have held the term at a reproachful distance. For example, a 2005 document from the Vatican barred from admission to the priesthood or religious life men who “support the so-called ‘gay culture'”.

Monday’s press conference on the papal plane marks the second time that Pope Francis has been heard to use the word “gay,” and moreover to do so without the protection of scare-quotes. The other was in a private meeting in June with members of the Latin American Conference of Religious, where the pope reportedly commented on the existence of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican, a topic that surfaced again during Monday’s conversation with journalists (“there are no good lobbies,” he aphorized). But this time, he added something crucial: not merely that “you should not discriminate against these people” who “should be made to feel welcome,” but also, in profound words that many gay Catholics have longed to hear, he declared: “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord in good will, who am I to judge?”

It is indeed cause for celebration that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church has named a contingent of fellow human beings with the words that they have chosen to name themselves and that his predecessors often denied to them. Even though they did not occur in the context of an official Vatican statement, Pope Francis’ remarks will be warmly welcomed by the majorities of U.S. Catholics who support nondiscrimination laws, adoption by same-sex couples, and equal legal recognition for committed same-sex relationships. Let this optimism be cautious, however: the pope did not endorse any specific changes in Catholic teaching, and there is nothing in his statement that commits him to doing so in the future.

While much work remains to be done to bring about the full equality of all citizens and believers, Monday Pope Francis simply and empathetically named what was once considered unnameable. He thus follows in the footsteps of his most significant predecessor, who lived two millennia ago and was also known to dine with outcasts and call them by name.

Patrick Hornbeck teaches theology at Fordham University.

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  • BlueMoose

    I am sure the Vatican will soon issue a “clarification.”

  • Hildy J

    Gay supporters are deluding themselves. The pope is referring to the idea that gay priests should be expelled. He is recognizing the logic that a celibate priest is not engaging in gay sex (which is still a sin) and therefore his attractions to men or women are immaterial.

    He has not condoned gay marriage in any form or gay sex in any form.

    He has not even gone as far as permitting gay men to become priests.

    His is a good step, but it’s a small step and we’ll have to wait to see if there’s another.

  • betI’mright

    I’m sure they will. The Vatican makes their own rules and doctrines as they continue to contradict God’s teachings.

  • apspa1

    Try though he may, Francis cannot make the criminal actions his pedophile priests go away by pretending gay and pedophilia are the same.

    He appears to be telling the victims and the world he will continue with the policy of hear-no-evil-see-no-evil-speak-no-evil that his predecessor Paul II adhered to so stubbornly, and it should be said, so painfully for the victims.

  • apspa1

    Once again the Catholic Church has been dragged away from its world of ghosts and spirits back down to the real world and reality.

    Once again bringing up the rear.

  • arwash

    Try though he may, Francis cannot make the criminal actions his pedophile priests go away by pretending gay and pedophilia are the same
    Isn’t the only difference is that one is consensual and the other is not?

  • leibowde84

    Where did you get that crazy idea, arwash?! What about all of the pedophiles that go after children of the opposite sex?! There is the same amount of “difference” between heterosexuals and pedophiles.

    Pedophelia is a sexual attraction to children, both male and female. Homosexuality is a sexual attraction to the same sex. One has to do with age. One has to do with gender.

  • leibowde84

    How could you possibly see a connection between pedophelia and homosexuality. They only similarity is that they are both sexual orientations.

  • leibowde84

    I must say, that was the craziest, most ignorant comment I’ve seen in a long time, arwash. You surprise me. I wouldn’t think that a Christian would make such a horribly cruel mistake.

  • Joe Painter

    I agree with the Bishop of Rome. I shall not judge or hate, but neither shall I give up the fight. Just a small thought from an Episcopalian.

  • leibowde84

    It’s just astounding that so many traditional Christians think that pedophelia is something other than it is. Where do they get the insane notion that it has anything to do with homosexuality, when there is no necessity for the victim involved to be of the same sex as the agressor?

  • Callie79

    The media did NOT report what the pope said next (as a note: my words are in parentheses): “The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says one must not marginalize these persons (“marginalize meaning to relegate to an unimportant or powerless position).”…”we must be like brothers & sisters (love the sinner, not the sin).”…”The problem is lobbying either for this orientation (here, the pope acknowledges supporting homosexuality is wrong). …” Pope Francis was also referring to a Catechism that states there may be many people in the world that have homosexual tendencies & they are suffering trials because this inclination (homosexuality) is disordered (is a sin). The Catechism adds that if they are Christians (the priests and anyone else for that matter), they should give their burden of homosexuality to the Lord’s Cross (meaning repentance and moving away from the sin). The pope was saying that we should love each other, but he was NOT saying we should support sins. Homosexuality is a sin. I think what the pope is saying is pretty much what I read somewhere on this: that if a homosexual is a priest, then he should practice as is his calling as long as he does not engage in the sin of homosexual sex. But just being homosexual is sin in of itself, so the pope is wrong about that, too.
    So the media is twisting things to make it seem like the pope is okay with homosexual priests being homosexual. He isn’t. And even if the pope was okay with it, he would be wrong. Homosexuality is against God’s doctrine (we recognize other sins as being the sins they are deemed as, why do homosexuals want a “pass card” on their sin?). Homosexuality opposes purpose to pro-create and be “fruitful”, opposes purity and opposes the harmony of opposites balancing one another out.
    Since homosexuality opposes God, homosesexuals should not be priests if they haven’t repented of their lifestyle; if they haven’t even renewed self in spirit and morality.

  • Callie79

    The Vatican has a lot to answer for. How can you be a priest & teach others how to live right if you, even in one area of your life, still lean toward a sin without renewing your spirit above that sin, first? They were not called to the priesthood as much as they think they were.