This was the sentiment I encountered on Monday as the Pope’s statement addressing LGBT rights echoed throughout the globe. Facebook and Twitter lit up with comments, ecstatic posters praising a potential new direction in the church.
For people involved in the global movement for LGBT rights, the Pope’s statement was nothing short of astonishing. In recent years the Catholic Church had moved to close off access to the church for LGBT individuals, and it has been completely silent on the risks and dangers LGBT individuals face in various countries around the globe.
Yet despite this positive reaction, many individuals wonder why this news is important. Later the pope reaffirmed the traditional church teaching on same-sex sexual behavior. This take was not just fielded by conservative Christian groups, but also by gay advocates and non-Christians as well. The Daily Show ran a particularly excoriating review of the pronouncement. In questioning this pronouncement by the church, many on the left found themselves asking the same question as traditionalists: what does the pope’s statement really change?
To understand why the Pope’s statement is significant, one needs not to look to the Americas and Western Europe, but to the rest of the world. The struggle for LGBT individuals in the rest of the world is often a stark, desperate situation. In Russia, gay individuals face beating and imprisonment. In Uganda, repeated attempts have been made, at times underwritten by American Christians, to criminalize homosexuality. In the Middle East, silence is the standard of treatment for LGBT individuals. In Iran, execution has been used repeatedly as the punishment for conviction of homosexual acts. This kind of oppression happens over and over around the world.
The Western church has remained largely silent on these issues. All too often the underlying rationale for silence comes back to worldview rationalization. While Western Christians usually don’t advocate punishment or execution as a punishment for LGBT individuals, in the minds of many some conservative Christians same-sex attraction is a matter of choice, and a sinful one at that. Thus the incentive is diminished: it becomes no longer an issue of human rights, an instrument of oppression, but instead is simply a punishment perhaps too harsh for the “crime.” LGBT oppression gets moved to the back burner, behind other issues such as global poverty, illness, and human trafficking.
This is why the Pope’s statement can be potentially so important. The Pope’s statement undermines this distorted Christian perspective in two distinct ways. First, the Pope declared that LGBT individuals are capable of becoming Christians and having goodwill. Underwriting this declaration is the idea that the LGBT community is not sinful simply by virtue of their orientation. In the background of Christian theology, there is a sinister notion that same-sex orientation is either a result of individual sin or sinful in and of itself. In contrast, gay Catholics could serve in the priesthood and take a vow of chastity (Henry Nouwen is the best example). This practice had long been present in Catholicism, but in recent years the church had moved to take a harsher line with celibate gay priests and with the LGBT community in general. The Pope’s statement gives hope to those who see the old policies renewed.
Even more importantly for the world, the Pope’s statement identifies the LGBT community as a marginalized, oppressed community, one worthy of protection. It is this statement that potentially can be something more than just a change in tone. It offers a sliver of hope that the global church might begin to act to decrease the oppression of LGBT individuals in the world. If priests around the globe merely echo the Pope’s statement with their words and deeds, the ramifications would be enormous. The church is an enormously powerful institution in the world, both on the state and local level. Priests telling their congregants and their senators not to oppress or criminalize LGBT individuals would be a huge counter to religious forces that often buttress legal discrimination. The effect of the church standing with or marginalizing the poor is immense: in the 1600s, the church was apart of the domination and destruction of Native peoples in Sudamerica. In the 1960s through the 1990s, priests and bishops who stood against corrupt dictators gave hope for oppressed peoples in those same regions.
It’s too early to say whether the Pope will follow through on his announcements; it’s too soon to know if dioceses around the world will react and implement policies in their local communities. The Russian Orthodox church has chosen to act with the oppressor, and with their support Putin and the Russian government have initiated state-sponsored oppression that may even threaten the Socchi games. Yet the Pope’s words last Monday give hope to LGBT individuals and their families. Hope for a church that would argue and even fight (nonviolently) for their shared humanity and dignity. And so it’s no surprise that it got our attention. In Uganda, Malawi, and many other nations, it’s been a long time since gay people had any hope.