Pope Francis during his general audience in St. Peter's Square on… (Maurizo Brambatti / EPA )
Is Pope Francis, who has been almost universally welcomed as a kinder, gentler shepherd of the Roman Catholic Church, a homophobe?
That possibility explains the consternation produced by reports that the pontiff acknowledged that there was a “gay lobby” at work in the Vatican. But it’s premature to conclude that the pope bears any animus toward gay clerics (assuming that they abide by their vows and abstain from sex) or gays and lesbians in general.
The English phrase “gay lobby” appears in a “synthesis” -- otherwise written in Spanish -- of the pope’s comments to a delegation of representatives of Latin American and Caribbean religious orders. Here’s the Associated Press account:
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In the document, Francis is quoted as saying that while there were many holy people in the Vatican, there was also a current of corruption. “The ‘gay lobby’ is mentioned, and it is true, it is there … We need to see what we can do …,” the synthesis reads.
But there is a history to the term gay lobby. It harks back to salacious reports in the Italian press about such a lobby or faction at the Vatican during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Supposedly it consisted of sexually active clerics who were the targets of blackmail by outsiders who wanted to influence papal policy. Any lobbying these compromised clerics were supposedly engaging in wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with homosexuality.
It’s a scenario out of a Dan Brown novel, but perhaps it’s true. The pope could be concerned about corrupt church officials without having any animus against gay priests as such. Still, it’s understandable that gay Catholics (and others) might be alarmed by reports of the pope’s remarks, given past Vatican pronouncements about homosexuality. For example, in 2005, a Vatican office issued guidelines suggesting that seminaries shouldn’t accept candidates to the priesthood who “present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’ ”
Not even the most liberal Catholics expect this pope to repudiate the core Catholic teaching that sex is permissible only within a heterosexual marriage. But Francis' more pastoral style has encouraged the hope that he will avoid the antagonistic approach to gays embodied in those Vatican declarations.
His offhand comments about a gay lobby haven’t quite dashed those hopes, but the next time Francis talks about gays, hopefully it will be in a broader and more sympathetic context.
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