Friday, October 23, 2020

Why We Didn't Wait

There's been a lot of excitement this week after reports that a new documentary shows Pope Francis telling an interviewer that he supports civil unions for same-sex couples.  As usual when a Pope says something vaguely humane, many people exaggerated its significance, but for once they were roughly in the ballpark.  The interview was evidently snipped from a 2019 television interview that never aired in its entirety, but it appears that the pontiff did actually say it.

There are, as usual, some minor complications.  For example, Francis had spoken in favor of civil unions in 2010 while he was still a cardinal in Argentina, though this seems to have been partly a bargaining chip, a compromise to ward off legalization of same-sex marriage there.

Before he was elected pope, Francis served as archbishop of Buenos Aires, and in that role, he advocated for same-sex civil unions in an attempt to block a same-sex marriage law. Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, which then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio called a “destructive attack on God’s plan.” But in meetings with other Argentine bishops, Cardinal Bergoglio urged them to support civil unions as a way to keep marriage distinctly heterosexual. Bishops rejected the idea, but an L.G.B.T. activist in Argentina said the cardinal called him to say he personally supported the idea of civil unions.

As you can see, the effort to prevent same-sex marriage in Argentina failed.  It's hard to tell whether Bergoglio "advocated for same-sex civil unions" publicly, or in conference with other princes of the Church.  I don't entirely trust the activist who claims the cardinal called him personally; people have a tendency to hear what they want to hear in these situations.

Anyway, the documentary shows Francis saying "What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered."  This is much clearer than his previous statements.  But here in the US, as in numerous other countries, we already have same-sex marriage; civil unions are beside the point.  And "we"?  The Pope isn't a legislator, and in any country where Catholicism isn't the state religion, his opinions should have no weight, any more than any other religious leader.

Francis also said in the film, “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”

This is nice, I suppose, but I don't need the Pope's permission to have a family.  And typically, it's ambiguous enough that some people got ahead of themselves. Did he mean that Catholic adoption agencies will have to place children with same-sex couples?  It's hard to say for sure, but probably not:

While the pope did not elaborate on the meaning of those remarks in the video, Pope Francis has spoken before to encourage parents and relatives not to ostracize or shun children who have identified as LGBT. This seems to be the sense in which the pope spoke about the right of people to be a part of the family.

Some have suggested that when Pope Francis spoke about a “right to a family,” the pope was offering a kind of tacit endorsement of adoption by same-sex couples. But the pope has previously spoken against such adoptions, saying that through them children are “deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God,” and saying that “every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.” 

The first thing I wondered was what Francis thinks civil unions entail.  Francis said in the same interview that gay people "have a right to a family," before adding: "That does not mean approving of homosexual acts, not in the least." The Catholic hierarchy aren't known for their knowledge of the real world, so I would bet he thinks that civilly united couples won't do the nasty.  Marriage, whether civil or religious, is supposed to be consummated, but civil unions may not be.  However, it's reasonably certain that they usually will be, and the Catholic position that you can be homosexual as long as you abstain from any genital contact isn't binding in such unions.  Some same-sex Catholic couples may choose abstinence, but I don't believe most will, any more than most heterosexual Catholic couples eschew contraception or abortion.

So my take is that while Francis' remarks are a small advance, they also lag behind the real world -- even much of the Catholic world.  They are already infuriating reactionary Catholics who already hate him.  How much and what kind of effect they'll have will have to be seen, but I don't expect much.

This morning NPR's Morning Edition featured an "openly gay" Catholic priest named Bryan Massingale who was predictably "excited and even jubilant" about the news.  He asserted -- probably incorrectly, as we've seen -- that "I think what the pope is saying is that he is not opposed to the legal recognition of family life and the right for gay and lesbian persons to raise and have families."  And:

He has not changed church teaching regarding behavior or conduct. He still would see that as being morally problematic. However, he goes back to his question, do we focus on behavior, or do we focus on persons? And even sinful persons still have human rights that we're all called to respect and to protect.

This is really reaching, and "morally problematic" is the understatement of the day.  But he was on a roll:

I think for queer Catholics, it's a sign of hope that the church can change. It can grow. It can evolve. I think it's also a sign of hope that especially in places where LGBTQ persons are more actively persecuted, this is a sign of hope that that kind of persecution cannot be reconciled with the Christian faith.

Ah, hope.  That might be more salient for queer people who are "more actively persecuted"; in America and elsewhere, it's too little too late. As I wrote on a similar occasion a few years ago, "You can hope for anything you like, regardless of what the Vatican says, and you can make up whatever fanciful tales you like about what the pope says or believes, but that doesn't guarantee you'll get what you want."

Another thing that annoys me is the way many people scour Francis's statements for what they "hint" or may "imply" or "suggest," as if he were the Delphic Oracle and no one has any business pressing him to make himself clear.  Part of the problem of course is that even when he is reasonably clear, they still overinterpret him to suit their own fantasies.  Maybe that's it: if they got him to clarify, they wouldn't like what he'd tell them.

I kept thinking of the Southern Baptist Convention's very tardy abandonment of slavery and Jim Crow in the 1990s.  The excuses many people -- not only Catholics, to my surprise -- made and continue to make for Francis' footdragging are ironic, really: I recognize that you aren't going to move a dead dinosaur easily or quickly, but the Church claims to be a moral leader, not a follower.  Instead it shambles along in the wake of wiser people, many of them not even religious, and expects to be applauded when the Pope makes a half-assed concession to a better moral stance. Those who want to may do so, but if they expect me to join in, they'll find me with my arms crossed, tapping my foot: What took the Church so long, and why is it still clinging to bigoted positions on so many issues?  I'm glad the gay movement around the world didn't refuse to wait for the Vatican to come around: we not only challenged churches, we attacked them when they tried to interfere with progress.

Remember when John Paul II tried to prevent a gay pride celebration in Rome in 2000?  He delivered a diatribe against it, but it took place anyway, "amid heavy police security after threats by neo-Fascists to disrupt the proceedings."  There were reports, as I recall, of collusion between the Vatican and the neo-Fascists, but in the end nothing happened.  I had some online exchanges with some gay Catholics who asked why the homosexuals decided to have the parade when they did, during a Holy Year?  I reminded them that the celebration was scheduled for the end of Pride Week, commemorating the Stonewall Riots, a very holy day for the gay movement.  (For an entertainingly overwrought paleo-Catholic denunciation of that celebration, see this.)  And that was only one less-effective attempt by the Church to impose its will on people over whom it had real authority.

I don't get why so many gay non-Catholics invest so much emotion in Francis and other Popes.  Those I've talked to try to put in terms of their sympathy for others, but they take Francis' pronouncements too personally for me to believe them.  I think they're authoritarians at heart.  They love authority so much they'll welcome the yoke of people who have no authority over them at all.  It's like Americans who follow the British royal family, except that the Queen isn't telling Americans how to govern ourselves.  It's especially ironic at a time when so many Americans are having conniptions over alleged or (occasionally) real foreign interference in our political affairs.  Francis isn't likely to have much impact on us, but it's the thought that counts.