Pope Francis’ same-sex union statement continues to ripple through Catholic community

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Last week, in an airing of the documentary “Francesco” as part of the Rome Film Festival, Pope Francis made a statement regarding same-sex civil unions.

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God,” Francis said. “You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”

But, to quote the Church’s official language of Latin: quid sibi hoc vult? What does he mean?

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a national group led by gay and transgender Catholics and allies, understands why many might see the statement as being “too little, too late.” 

“But I’m also cognisant,” Duddy-Burke said, “that countries where gay or transgender people have no protections, this could have monumental impact on creating legitimization in their lives.” She added that, at least unofficially, two-thirds of American Catholics support marriage equality. “And many of us question why same sex couples can’t celebrate sacramental marriage in the church.”

There are two schools of thought within the Church: a conservative side of leaders and believers who eschew such “modern” thinking, and those who embrace a more liberal approach. 

“But,” Duddy-Burke concluded, “you can’t really have a welcoming embrace from the pastoral side of things, and still officially say the church has to work actively against any immoral lifestyle.”

Michael Rocks, president of Philadelphia’s chapter of DignityUSA, has been with the group nearly 50 years. The local chapter meets at St. Luke and the Epiphany Episcopalian Church in the heart of the Gayborhood. The intersection of gay Catholics meeting and celebrating Mass in an Episcopalian church may give one pause. 

But, as adherents to both of the Christian sects might be aware, the liturgy in each denomination is very similar, as are traditions, customs, and artwork. When asked why Rocks simply doesn’t join the largely gay-affirming Episcopalian Church he gives a profound response.

“I would go to an Episcopalian Mass in a heartbeat,” he said. “But, I was raised a Catholic. I am a Roman Catholic. I’m not going anywhere. Why should I?” 

Rocks cites an exhortation made by Francis I in 2016 called “Amoris Laetitia” or “The Joy of Love.” 

“In the Joy of Love, Francis outlines and opens up a pastoral way for the church to change the way it accepts LGBT people,” Rocks said. “So our community was not surprised that the pope felt this way. We feel welcomed by him. The pope is after all the supreme teacher for Catholics.”

Many conservative Catholics feel that LGBTQ lives and relationships are sexually motivated. Rocks sees a disparity regarding gay relationships and straight couples who cohabitate before marriage. Yet, there are parishes who welcome LGBTQ Catholics as children of God. 

Francis is the first pontiff elected from the Society of Jesus, also known as The Jesuits. Long-considered to be scholars of the Church because of their large network of institutions of higher learning, including Georgetown, the University of San Francisco, Saint Joseph’s in Philadelphia, Boston College, and Fordham University in New York (which is the alma mater of the writer of this article), the Jesuits often champion the cause of the poor and the disenfranchised.

Old Saint Joseph’s, a local Jesuit parish founded in 1733, welcomed some of the Founding Fathers on the eve of the Revolution. The Reverend Walter Modrys, S.J., pastor of the historic congregation, explained that there are three parts to consider regarding Francis’ statement. Modrys spoke to PGN in his capacity as a pastor. He is not speaking for the Church or the Archbishop of the Philadelphia Diocese.

“Firstly, there is confusion about the statement,” Modrys said. “There should be clarity. There is a difference between when the pope is stating an opinion, versus something encyclical. Secondly, the pope hasn’t gone anywhere near amending the doctrine that marriage is exclusively between one man and one woman. Thirdly, what should be the pastoral response.” Modrys also commented that “as a pastor you have people you must take care of, not just from the standpoint of catechism.” The last statement echoes Old Saint Joseph’s website, which says, “All are welcome here.”

Pope Francis has sought to forge a relationship with what one might call a diaspora of faithful Catholics who happen to be gay or transgender. Early on in his pontificate, he made a statement that seemed to sum up his feelings on LGBTQ Catholics: “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?”