Pope Francis reached out to gays, saying he won’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a news conference Monday. (AP)
In becoming quite possibly the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to utter publicly the word “gay,” Pope Francis showed again Monday that he understands the power of words. His comments to journalists on the plane home from World Youth Day both are, and are not, a break from precedent.
History is littered with epithets used abusively by some groups toward others, words which have so wounded souls that today they are considered not just inappropriate, but hateful and malicious. Some groups have been able to reclaim the words of their abusers, while for others, the indignity of being called—of being reduced to—inescapably pejorative language can be rectified only when those slurs fall, silent, into disuse.
All this reminds us that language has the power to wound, as well as the power to heal. It has become a basic rule of civility to name people with the words by which they wish to be called. This has come to be seen as a powerful way of respecting the identities and, fundamentally, the dignity of others. It was this rule that Pope Francis put calmly into practice.
For decades, Vatican documents have almost unfailingly refused to refer to gay men and women as anything other than “homosexual persons.” These documents have condemned as sinful their “homosexual acts” and labeled their “inclination” an “objective disorder,” while also maintaining that they “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
Few gay men and lesbians choose to call themselves “homosexual persons”; perhaps even fewer would describe their sexual behaviors as “homosexual acts.” Much of the reason is that within large segments of the LGBT community, the words “homosexual” and “homosexuality” appear to have clinical, pathological overtones. The word “homosexual” made its debut in English in 1892, in a translation of a German work that included homosexuality on a list of varieties of sexual perversion. “Heterosexual” appeared around the same time, but originally referred to another kind of mental disorder, one where “a patient exhibited both male erotic attractions to females and female erotic attractions to males.” It was only later that it assumed its modern meaning, although what we now refer to as heterosexuality has been privileged for much longer than that.
For decades, homosexuality was stigmatized as a form of mental illness in the United States, and it is still considered criminal in many parts of the world. Many gay men and lesbians, not to mention their straight allies, have seen the Vatican’s use of words like “homosexual” as part of a rhetorical and theological strategy to portray heterosexuality as normative and treat other forms of human sexuality as deficient or perverse. Indeed, in the few instances when Vatican documents have used the word “gay,” they have held the term at a reproachful distance. For example, a 2005 document from the Vatican barred from admission to the priesthood or religious life men who “support the so-called ‘gay culture’”.
Monday’s press conference on the papal plane marks the second time that Pope Francis has been heard to use the word “gay,” and moreover to do so without the protection of scare-quotes. The other was in a private meeting in June with members of the Latin American Conference of Religious, where the pope reportedly commented on the existence of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican, a topic that surfaced again during Monday’s conversation with journalists (“there are no good lobbies,” he aphorized). But this time, he added something crucial: not merely that “you should not discriminate against these people” who “should be made to feel welcome,” but also, in profound words that many gay Catholics have longed to hear, he declared: “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord in good will, who am I to judge?”
It is indeed cause for celebration that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church has named a contingent of fellow human beings with the words that they have chosen to name themselves and that his predecessors often denied to them. Even though they did not occur in the context of an official Vatican statement, Pope Francis’ remarks will be warmly welcomed by the majorities of U.S. Catholics who support nondiscrimination laws, adoption by same-sex couples, and equal legal recognition for committed same-sex relationships. Let this optimism be cautious, however: the pope did not endorse any specific changes in Catholic teaching, and there is nothing in his statement that commits him to doing so in the future.
While much work remains to be done to bring about the full equality of all citizens and believers, Monday Pope Francis simply and empathetically named what was once considered unnameable. He thus follows in the footsteps of his most significant predecessor, who lived two millennia ago and was also known to dine with outcasts and call them by name.
Patrick Hornbeck teaches theology at Fordham University.