“Children of God”

Pope Francis and his tussle with the Catholic Church over the LGBTIQ community

By Shihara Maduwage (Media and Communications Officer, EQUAL GROUND)

In a historic move, earlier this month (21 October), Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church expressed his support for civil unions between same-sex couples.

In a new documentary called ‘Francesco’, directed by Russian filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky, the Pope said, “homosexual people have a right to be in a family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it.” He added that a civil union law must be created to give such couples legal recognition.

These are in stark contrast to his immediate predecessor’s views; Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly denounced relationships among same-sex couples, going as far as to link equal marriage rights to the Antichrist. Speaking of the marriage equality movement, he described it as “powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage”.

For his part, this is not the first time Pope Francis – hailed as a more progressive religious figure than his predecessors – has spoken of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTIQ) community in a compassionate light. In the past, he has asked fellow Catholics to welcome and show mercy to LGBTIQ persons, saying, “if a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” The leading US-based, LGBTIQ rights magazine, The Advocate, even named Pope Francis its ‘Person of the Year’ in 2013. However, this is the first time he supported same-sex unions directly.

Being the first such endorsement from the Roman Catholic Church – a deeply conservative religious institution that has steadfastly opposed same-sex marriages and unions – this is a significant win for the LGBTIQ rights movements worldwide. The Pope, the highest authority in the Roman Catholic Church, is the leader of over 1.3 billion believers – or around 17% of the world population. This means that the comments by the Pope will undoubtedly lead to a remarkable shift in the debates about the legal, social, and religious recognition of non-heteronormative relationships.

However, it seems that even the Pope is not formidable enough of a force against the Catholic Church’s deep-rooted homophobia, and it did not take long for the Pope’s comments to be mired in controversy. For instance, Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of Pope Francis’ strongest critics, accused the latter of confusing Catholics by expressing his personal opinion on religious doctrine. Echoing similar sentiments, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, US claimed that the Pope’s comments go against the church’s teachings on same-sex relations, as did Ed Mechmann, the Director of Public Policy for the Archidiocese of New York.

Meanwhile, others contended that the Pope did not mean to endorse same-sex marriages at all, but his comments were ‘lost in translation.’ This is with reference to Pope Francis referring to a law of “convivencia civil,” or “civil cohabitating,” which critics claimed does not mean the same thing as “civil union.”

While disappointing, the backlash is to be expected – and is not the most disturbing part of the saga. Even though Mr. Afineevsky insisted that he interviewed the Pope when the comments in question were made, it has come to light that Pope Francis actually made these remarks during an interview with Mexican broadcaster, Televisa, in 2019. An anonymous source said that the Vatican, which shot the interview, deleted the quote when sending the footage to Televisa – essentially censoring the Pope! The Vatican has not commented on the controversy.

At home in Sri Lanka, neither Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith – the leader of over 1.2 million Catholics in Sri Lanka – nor his office, has issued a statement regarding the Pope’s comments yet. While the LGBTIQ community of Sri Lanka, particularly the Catholic LBGTIQ community, welcomes Pope Francis’ inclusive viewpoint, EQUAL GROUND hopes that the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka echoes these sentiments and takes steps to welcome every one of the faith regardless of their Sexual Orientation and/or Gender Identity/Expression.

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