To come out on the winning side of history is a glorious thing, and Pope Francis, spiritual leader to over a billion souls, would certainly like to join that side. Perhaps he is trying to. Whatever the case, Pope Francis has definitely positioned himself as a pope of the 21st century — a transitory figure that is caught between two histories for the Church.
With his recent statement to Juan Carlos Cruz, a gay Chilean man who was a subject of clerical sexual abuse (“[Cruz’s sexuality] doesn’t matter. God made you like this. God loves you like this”), Francis once again finds himself a lightning rod in the cultural struggles of the new millennium.
The relationship between the Catholic Church and the LQBTQ+ community has been less than stellar, to put it disingenuously. Shortly after ascending to the papal throne in 2013, however, Francis has made waves throughout the political sphere by saying that “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” in regards to Catholics who have homosexual urges or orientations.
Of course, such a statement would generate buzz and controversy, with many wondering if Pope Francis would be a redeemer Pope — one who would usher in a new era of Catholic identity, and act as a beacon in a time of Catholic disarray.
The Church, especially in 2013, was dogged by its failure to properly punish its clergy members who had committed sexual abuse, oftentimes working to suppress those rumors for years or decades. Another less damaging controversy perhaps more relevant to the Church’s image revolved around the ever-present debate over whether the Church was doing enough in its mission to administer to the poor.
Perhaps rather luckily for the Church, it was the Argentinian cardinal Jose Mario Bergoglio who became the new pontiff. After all, Francis is a pope of many firsts; the first of the Americas, the first from the southern hemisphere, the first Jesuit. And, apparently, one of the first popes to not dismiss and degrade the queer community.
In an order long dominated by Italian and German clerics and marred by opulence, it is easy to understand why liberal Catholics assumed that Francis would be more inclined towards progressiveness than his forebears. Francis’ order, the Society of Jesus, is dogmatically zealous but also educated, savvy, and worldly.
Jesuits spend their time amongst the general populace, rather than secluding themselves away in a monastery. Francis himself spent time as a chemistry teacher in his native Argentina. The hope was that Francis, as someone who had spent time amongst the people, would fight for the people.
In many respects, he has. Since assuming office, Francis has widely been seen and accepted as a pope who values all the things Catholic faithful should: world peace and the poor. Unfortunately, earlier hopes that Francis would liberate the Church from its complicated sexual misadventures have been dashed.
For one thing, he has been slower to properly censure and punish clerics who abuse their parish. As mentioned earlier, Juan Carlos Cruz was from Chile, where clerical abuse has been occurring for decades. Although he has since said he was “part of the problem,” as The Guardian reports, this apology was in response to Francis earlier defending Bishop Juan Barros from accusations that he had been too sluggish in dealing with the abuse crisis, accusing Barros’ critics of “calumny.”
Furthermore, critics were quick to point out that when Francis first issued his “who am I to judge” statement, his comment referred to gay people and their mindsets, and not homosexual acts in and of themselves. To the Church, the official position of homosexuality as a sin still remains. Not quite the “pray the gay away” extremism of our Evangelical brothers, but not dissimilar.
Admittedly, it was too much to expect that one pope out of a line of hundreds would change the Church during his tenure alone. Nevertheless, if he cannot be a historical hero, then Francis will at least go down in history as the first stage in a period of opening and soul searching for the Catholic Church.
The Church, although built upon 2,000 years of history, is not totally deaf to the changing world around it, as both the 16th Century Counter-Reformation and the mid-20th Century Second Vatican Council have shown. The Church has survived those 2,000 years by being adaptable. If change does not begin now, then it will soon.