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Is Pope Francis a Lone Ranger on apologizing to gays?

Pope Francis celebrates Mass during the Feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) at St. Giovanni in Laterano Basilica, in Rome, on May 26, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CATHOLIC-GAYS, originally transmitted on June 30, 2016.

(RNS) When Pope Francis said this week that the church should ask forgiveness from gay people for the way it has treated them, he sparked yet another round of global headlines about how his unpredictable papacy is changing Catholicism.

But more than setting the church on a new course, Francis may have exposed the tensions within his own hierarchy over how to engage the gay community — tensions that have intensified in the weeks after the horrific massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 dead.

Francis’ comments Sunday (June 26) during an in-flight press conference on his return from a trip to Armenia came in response to remarks by German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a top adviser to the pope. A few days earlier, Marx had said that the Catholic Church, as well as society, had treated gay people in a “scandalous and terrible” way.

“The history of homosexuals in our society is a very bad history because we have done a lot to marginalize them. It is not so long ago and so as church and as society we have to say sorry,” Marx told journalists after a lecture he gave in Dublin on the role of the church in a pluralist society.

That didn’t sit well with some Catholics, including South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier. “God help us! Next we’ll have to apologize for teaching that adultery is a sin! Political Correctness (PC) is today’s major heresy!” he tweeted.

Marx’s line actually echoed what Florida Bishop Robert Lynch wrote a day after the June 12 massacre, when he opined that “it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people.”

Lynch, who heads the Diocese of St. Petersburg, added that “attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence” — a statement that drew sharp attacks from conservatives who said the blame lay with shooter Omar Mateen, a Muslim, and not with Catholics or Catholicism.

Lynch’s words spread so far they prompted a remarkable public rebuke from a fellow prelate and Floridian, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski.

At a June 19 Mass to mark the opening of an annual campaign for religious freedom, Wenski ripped those who said religion was a factor in anti-gay violence, and referring to Lynch — whom he described as “one bishop who should know better” — he asked: “Where in our faith, where in our teachings … do we target and breed contempt for any group of people?

“Our faith, our religion gives no comfort, no sanction to a racist, or a misogynist, or a homophobe,” Wenski said.

Needless to say, some other church leaders took a different tack. If they did not directly blame church teachings — which describe homosexuality as “objectively disordered” but say gays should not be subject to “unjust” discrimination — they did say Christians have been the source of anti-gay sentiment.

Then came Sunday’s papal press conference when Francis was asked about Marx’s remarks and the Orlando killings and about suggestions that Christians need to examine their own consciences when it comes to the treatment of gays and lesbians.

Francis shook his head in grief at the mention of Orlando and recalled church teachings that homosexuals “should not be discriminated against” and “should be respected, accompanied pastorally.”

Then he added: “I think that the church not only should apologize … to a gay person whom it offended, but it must also apologize to the poor as well, to the women who have been exploited, to children who have been exploited by (being forced to) work.”

Christians, he reiterated, “must ask forgiveness, not just say sorry.”

In an understandable bit of ball-spiking, Bishop Lynch the next day posted a response to Wenski and his other critics, writing: “Apropos recent comments concerning my last blog entry on the Orlando massacre I simply offer the following” – and he then cited the quotations from Francis and Marx about the church apologizing to gays.

That was the ecclesiastical equivalent of a mic drop.

But it was hardly the last word. Why is this such a contentious issue for the hierarchy?

For one thing, the experience of Catholic bishops may not track that of the wider public, which in recent years has grown used to gays and lesbians coming out of the closet to family and friends.

That’s not the case in the church, said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at America magazine; gay people can be fired from church posts if they are open about their sexual identity.

“A gay friend of mine who worked for several years for an otherwise compassionate bishop told me that the bishop made so many snide comments about gay people, in my friend’s presence, that there was no way he would ever be ‘out’ with him,” said Martin, who has called on the institutional church to be more outspoken for the gay community.

“So it’s no wonder that many don’t know many gays or lesbians,” Martin wrote in an email. “The way to heal this is for bishops to do a simple thing: Get to know the LGBT community and listen to them.”

Francis himself has gay friends, and that may be one reason he is able to speak as he does.

Another stumbling block to a broader embrace of the pontiff’s approach is the concern among some that expressing regrets to gays and lesbians would be tantamount to affirming their identity as homosexuals.

That’s one reason why many church leaders who expressed sorrow over Orlando and called for prayers did not mention that the shooter apparently targeted homosexuals.

In a response to Martin’s comments after Orlando, Elliot Milco, an editor at the conservative journal First Things, said that to have done so “would be deeply misleading on the part of the bishops, since the Church cannot endorse this ideology.”

“Fr. Martin says that gay people are ‘invisible’ in the Church. To an extent, he is right – the Church, like Christ, refuses to mistake the mirage of sin and ideology for the reality of the people it encounters,” Milco concluded.

Yet in his remarks a few days after Milco’s essay, Francis used the word “gay” to refer to the community, which he has done before, and which rankles some in the church.

A third factor at work is simply that it’s not easy to say you’re sorry — perhaps more so if you are a church that is dedicated to telling others where they have gone wrong.

“There are a lot of people at the Vatican who don’t like the church ever admitting we ever did anything wrong,” the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, told The New York Times. “With gays, it is especially important because they are still subject to persecution and discrimination all over the world, and even in the United States.”

Finally, many churchmen, like Wenski — and more than a few lay people — don’t think the church is biased against gays. If some Catholics have acted that way, it’s unfair to connect such behavior to the Orlando shooting or the almost commonplace level of violence against homosexuals in the U.S.

“There undoubtedly was a lot of anti-gay bias among Catholics — and everybody else — in the past, and some residual bias still exists,” said Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a veteran Catholic writer. “But in all my years as a Catholic, I do not recall any official encouragement being given to anti-gay bias by anybody speaking for the church, and today such bias is officially, and frequently, deplored and opposed.”

“The long and the short of it in any case is that attitudes among Catholics have changed a great deal in recent decades, and it distorts reality to speak as if nothing had changed.”

Others would take that view even further.

Asked on CNN on Tuesday if he thought Catholics should follow the pope’s advice and ask forgiveness of gay people for marginalizing them, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said no way, no how.

“As a matter of fact, I want an apology from gays,” Donohue said on CNN’s “New Day” program. “I’ve been assaulted by gays. I’ve never assaulted a gay person in my entire life.”

“(T)he idea of a blanket apology because you are a member of some demographic group, I mean, I don’t know what church teaching is it that you have a problem with that maybe the church should apologize for?”

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Wenski is so typical of bigots. He knows what the church teaches. He knows how people react to warnings of evil. Then he says, “Who? Me? “

  • Because he issues feckless insincere apologies rather than take appropriate actions. Less lone ranger more Japanese corporate executive caught in a scandal.

  • All this discussion is all well and good, but really, the reason so many bishops are bothered by the pope’s words can stated in five words: The Power of the Closet.

  • More dishonest reporting. Reinhart Marx also said it is up to the secular state “to make regulations for homosexuals so they have equal rights or nearly equal.” The state “has to regulate these partnerships and to bring them into a just position and WE AS CHURCH CANNOT BE AGAINST IT.” Compare that to the pope’s life-long opposition to marriage equality.

    The pope removed the Bishop of Bling but has not reprimanded Dominican Republic Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez for waging a campaign against the openly gay U.S. Ambassador James “Wally” Brewster. “The barrage of attacks has been vitriolic and unrelenting. Three times in the last months the cardinal has referred to the ambassador as ‘the little faggot.’”
    Or Cardinal Robert Sarah who said that transgender right are “demonic” and marriage equality is “poison” that in May, in Washington D.C.,
    Or Spanish Cardinal Antonio Cañizares who said that transgender not being a personal choice is “the most insidious ideology in the history of humanity,” and warned against a “gay empire” last month.

  • Gee whizzikins!

    Equal or almost equal. That sure makes me feel like a human being, or almost human, or a citizen, or almost a citizen, valuable, or almost valuable.

    I sure do love conservative Catholics. It’s like they are almost decent people.

    Thanks for posting this,

  • When has a bishop encouraged violence against gays? Every time there is a fag bashing in his diocese and he doesn’t issue a statement condemning it. Every time someone justifies violence against LGBT people on the basis of the Bible or religion, and he doesn’t publicly correct them. Every time a priest would join an anti-violence demonstration, or preach against hatred and fails to mention LGBT people, because the priest knows that this would be viewed unfavorably by the chancery. These help to create a climate in which abuse, violence and prejudice thrive. The hierarchy are blind to the fact that they are seen to be part of the problem.

  • He’s not responsible for what other people do. What about the homosexuals who call Christians bigots? Who speaks for homosexuals?

  • Exactly Sebastian. That and the openly homophobic within the RCC whom Betty listed.

  • Even minimal diminishing of dominance often feels like discrimination to the dominant group JP. Your comment echoes exactly those Christianists who claim they’re being picked on, while continuing to be the most powerful group in the USA.

  • Huh???? That has nothing to do with the name calling that homosexuals and those that support them call Christians. What homosexual has to authority to apologize to Christians for being called names etc?

  • It has everything to do with your complaints of needing to be apologized to. What you’re asking is similar to slave masters requiring apologies from their recently freed slaves. I’m sure there were times those slaves were surly.

    Christians have literally brought hell on earth to LBTG people, and now you’re wanting apologies because your feelings were hurt? Talk to me when LBTG folks pass laws limiting your freedoms, destroying your opportunities to have families, forbidding your employment options, inciting violence against you, etc.

  • Give me 2-3 examples with documentation that shows that “Christians have literally brought hell on earth to LBTG people,”

  • Oh please. Give it a rest. A couple centuries of ongoing gay bashing don’t come with documentation. If you don’t think that has real consequences, you are in the company of the other half dozen people who agree with you.

  • Sodomy laws: the crime against nature, not to be named among Chriistian men.

    Anti marriage campaigns, as you tell every lie you can about us in order to demonized us and deny the protection to our families that legal marriage gives us.

    The Christian nazi movement. Hitler huimself said it was Christian. Germans were Christian. And 250,000 gay people were murdered as a result.

    The Christian Right supporting antigay laws in Uganda, Russia, Jamaica, and Malawi- off the top of my head.

  • Try these examples, but if you google, you’ll find plenty more if you really want to know:



  • You are biased. You are a homosexual or have sympathy for their cause. Why are you condemning bishops who are truly defending scriptural teaching that homosexuality is unacceptable and sinful.
    It’s encouraging to see courageous bishops speak up against what this few gay lobbyists are doing to the church. This pope and his cohorts should be told and reminded that the church is not a society, it supposed to be a body of Christ making godly decisions. Affirming that marriage is between a man and woman from Adam and Eve time to Joseph and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

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