“If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has goodwill, then who am I to judge him?” announced Pope Francis upon assuming the papacy in 2013. Off to a surprisingly progressive start, he quickly impressed cynical Catholics by encouraging cloistered nuns to house transgender women in need and denying devout parents from disowning queer children.
Progressive Catholics routinely gobble up these statements to assuage their concerns about the Church and absolve Pope Francis of any accountability for its institutional homophobia. It’s understandable: We want to feel our organization is moving forward, becoming better. So last week, when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decreed once again that it “cannot bless same-sex unions” (a decree approved by Pope Francis), I groaned. This isn’t news: The Church’s homophobia is ingrained in its foundation, but the new statement is proof Pope Francis really isn’t all that different from his predecessors — just a different, lighter shade of the same oppression.
For disliking queer people so much, Pope Francis can’t stop talking about us and how in need we are, and indeed the Catholic Church has a long Franciscan history of caring for the lowly. With a focus on natural law (a belief in serving moral principles from unchanging “natural” human phenomena that informs the Church’s stances on homosexuality, abortion and divorce), Francis effectively believes queer people are to be patronized — that we are insufficient, thus worthy of pity and care. We are not. We’re a robust and thriving community demanding acknowledgment, not intervention.
“The Church comes off as two-faced, saying people are welcome but not as their whole, authentic selves,” says Kaya Oakes, author of Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church. In repeatedly reinforcing its bigoted dogmas, the Church continues to harm the well-being of its members, threatening our safety — most notably that of many queer or questioning children raised in the Catholic tradition.
Despite this, it’s still hard for many progressive Catholic adults to leave the Church, even knowing the toll the religion is taking on its most vulnerable members and often themselves. Oakes, a former atheist who returned to Catholicism despite its conservative theology, tells me, “The only way for feminists like myself and queer people and anyone else who feels marginalized or sidelined in the Church, including many Catholics of color, is to be in solidarity with one another, to support one another and to understand that ultimately, we can bless one another when the Church won’t bless us.” As a result, Catholic parishes in large cities, as well as online communities like Vine & Fig, stand in contrast to the Vatican, welcoming Catholics of color, women and queer people.
Other depleted Catholics may choose to leave the Church. Why go to bat for an institution that won’t change and won’t acknowledge us? We don’t tolerate homophobia (or racism and sexism) from our schools, government, workplaces or even fast-food restaurants, so why is it that we constantly make caveats for the Church?
Like any institution, it’s difficult to fully remove yourself from its tentacles. If there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, then there’s no correct devotion in Catholicism — even if you leave the religion. When the Church constructs your basic understanding of community, guiding principles and self-perception, it’s nearly impossible to remove its psychological influence.
“Spiritual abuse can be just as bad as physical and emotional abuse. I mean it’s a really, really serious thing,” says Jason Steidl, a gay Catholic and lecturer at St. Joseph’s College New York. Last week, Steidl issued several Twitter threads in response to the Vatican’s announcement, highlighting the ramifications of Francis’ latest statements. Most notably, he shared that a friend who volunteers for The Trevor Project’s suicide prevention hotline claimed the organization receives an increase in calls whenever the Church makes homophobic statements.
While a spokesperson for the Trevor Project informs me that their hotline data doesn’t suggest a spike in response to this particular Vatican announcement, hard data here is largely accessory: There is already plenty of evidence of the deadly toll the Catholic Church’s bigotry causes. Just look at one of the many stories of queer Catholics killing themselves or losing their jobs for being gay, despite data suggesting young Catholics are overwhelmingly accepting of homosexuality.
It’s clear that when the Church speaks harmfully of its queer members, the damage is swift and prolonged. Worse, Francis and the Vatican’s constant reminder that they don’t support queer people undermines the LGBTQ-identifying theologians, priests and community members who must do damage control.
As a tax-exempt entity that prides itself on being humanitarian, the Catholic Church has a responsibility to fully accept its queer parishioners, as well as women and Catholics of color. Every day they don’t, they continue harming children. It’s a human rights issue, and it needs to be treated as such.