Gay Catholic leaders in Boston are hailing Pope Francis’s assertion this week that Christians should apologize to gay people for marginalizing them.
But they also insist that words are insufficient: The church, they say, must change its teaching that gay sex is “intrinsically evil” and that marriage is a heterosexual union.
“I was taught by nuns that it’s not enough to say ‘I’m sorry,’ we had to make amends, and firmly commit to try as hard as we could not to make that mistake again,” said Peggy Hayes, president of Dignity/Boston, a community of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Catholics and their allies that worships in the South End. “I need to see that change of heart.”
On Sunday, a reporter on the papal plane asked Francis about German Cardinal Reinhard Marx’s comment, following this month’s shooting in an Orlando nightclub, that the church ought to apologize for marginalizing gay people.
“I repeat what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: that they must not be discriminated against, that they must be respected and accompanied pastorally,” Francis replied, according to Catholic News Agency’s transcript of the exchange.
He added a bit later: “The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge? And we must accompany them well.”
The Associated Press reported that a Vatican spokesman subsequently explained that Francis did not mean a medical “condition” but rather a lifestyle situation.
The pontiff’s comments echoed his famous 2013 remark about gay priests, which set the tone for his mercy-centered papacy: “Who am I to judge?”
“That really woke people up and made a lot of LGBT people feel more comfortable,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and best-selling author.
Since then, Francis has made more gestures of welcome toward gay people than any of his predecessors. Still, Martin said, “In the Catholic Church today, the LGBT community is the most marginalized.”
The church continues to teach that gay sex is a grave sin and that gay Catholics should lead celibate lives. Two worldwide gatherings of bishops in Rome in 2014 and 2015 to consider issues related to the family made no move to change that doctrine. Gay and transgender people continue to lose their jobs with Catholic schools and organizations, and in some parishes, gay people and their allies encounter homilies against gay marriage. Dignity Boston worships in an Episcopal church.
After the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando earlier this month, only a handful of American bishops mentioned that the victims were gay in public statements.
But in what may signal a slight shift in tone in some parts of the church, at least two US bishops said the Catholic Church must examine its own contributions to homophobia.
“This tragedy is a call for us as Catholics to combat ever more vigorously the anti-gay prejudice which exists in our Catholic community and in our country,” Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego said in his statement on the shootings.
“The church is a really conflicted place,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, who lives in Hyde Park and runs DignityUSA, advocating for gay and lesbian Catholics. “We have these policies and teachings on the books that are totally discredited, both scientifically and in the experience of real people, and yet no one has the courage to do away with them.”
John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said the pope’s healing words could begin to change that.
“Imagine if every Catholic pastor set up listening sessions with the LGBT community and forums for dialogue?” he said. “It would be a powerful step in addressing deep wounds.”
The Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the state’s largest ecumenical organization, said the pope’s words on Sunday could help bridge the gaps among Christians who disagree on gay issues -- and among their respective churches.
“Since Vatican II, divided parts of the Christian church have been drawing closer together, and I think this openness from Pope Francis is a gift of proximity with other parts of the church that have embraced the dignity and humanity of gay Christians,” she said. “I think we are learning from one another in this.”
Indeed, the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a Baptist minister and co-founder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition who opposed gay marriage after it became legal in Massachusetts 12 years ago, said he welcomed Francis’s words.
“I think the pope is right,” he said. “I think at the very least we should be entering into some deeper conversations about who we are as a church.”
Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, the bishop of the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church, which this month voted to refuse to comply with the worldwide church’s anti-gay provisions, said Christians must repent when they fail to be Christ-like.
The gay community, he said, “has waited a long time for us to begin our journey on this new path, and we who are Christian leaders must help lead the way.”
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.