Pope Francis and Cardinal McElroy speak out on LGBTQ issues

Breaking NewsViews James Martin, S.J. / February 7, 2023 Print this:
Pope Francis and Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, board a plane from South Sudan to Rome, on Feb. 5. (Photo courtesy of Vatican News)

Over the past few weeks, the church’s relationship with the LGBTQ community has been much in the news. Pope Francis discussed this issue during an extensive interview with the Associated Press and in follow-up questions, both on Outreach and during an in-flight press conference. In an essay for America, Cardinal Robert W. McElroy, the archbishop of San Diego, took up the topic, focusing on welcome and inclusion.

Taken together, these comments continue the conversation over the church’s relationship with LGBTQ people, which was begun by Pope Francis within the first few months of his papacy, when he asked, “Who am I to judge?”

Here are some significant quotes.

“To condemn such people is a sin.”

This was the Holy Father’s response to a question from a Radio France journalist during an in-flight press conference en route from South Sudan to Rome on Feb. 5. Bruce De Galzain refers to the pope’s historic words against the criminalization of homosexuality.

From the Vatican News transcript of the press conference:

Bruce De Galzain (Radio France): Holy Father, before departing on your apostolic journey you denounced the criminalization of homosexuality, which is not accepted by families either in South Sudan or in Congo.

This week in Kinshasa I met five homosexuals, each of whom had been rejected and even expelled from their families. They explained to me that their rejection comes from their parents’ religious upbringing—some of them are taken to exorcist priests because their families believe they are possessed by unclean spirits.

My question, Holy Father, is: What do you say to the families in Congo and South Sudan who still reject their children, and what do you say to the priests, to the bishops?

Pope Francis: I have spoken on this issue on two journeys. The first time [upon my return] from Brazil: “If a person with homosexual tendencies is a believer and seeks God, who am I to judge him?” I said this on that trip.

Secondly, coming back from Ireland, it was a bit of a problematic trip because that day a letter had just been published from that young man…in that case I said clearly to parents: “Children with this orientation have a right to stay at home; you cannot kick them out of the house.” And then recently I said something, I don’t really remember my exact words, in the interview with the Associated Press.

The criminalization of homosexuality is an issue that must not be allowed to pass by. It is estimated that, more or less, 50 countries, in one way or another, promote this kind of criminalization—they tell me more, but let’s say at least fifty, and some of these, I think it’s 10, even foresee the death penalty [for homosexual persons].

God loves them, God accompanies them.

This is not right. People with homosexual tendencies are children of God. God loves them, God accompanies them. It is true that some are in this state because of various unwanted situations, but to condemn such people is a sin; to criminalize people with homosexual tendencies is an injustice. I am not talking about groups, but about people.

Some say: they join in groups that generate noise. I am talking about people; lobbies are something different. I am talking about people. And I believe the Catechism of the Catholic Church says they should not be marginalized. This point, I believe, is clear.”

On “radical inclusion”

In his article for America, Cardinal McElroy discussed the idea of “radical inclusion” for LGBTQ people, women and others in the church. He also touched on several topics regarding synodality.

It is important to note that the synodal dialogues have given substantial attention to the exclusions of LGBT Catholics beyond the issue of the Eucharist. There were widespread calls for greater inclusion of LGBT women and men in the life of the church, and shame and outrage that heinous acts of exclusion still exist.

It is a demonic mystery of the human soul why so many men and women have a profound and visceral animus toward members of the LGBT communities. The church’s primary witness in the face of this bigotry must be one of embrace rather than distance or condemnation.

The distinction between orientation and activity cannot be the principal focus for such a pastoral embrace because it inevitably suggests dividing the LGBT community into those who refrain from sexual activity and those who do not. Rather, the dignity of every person as a child of God struggling in this world, and the loving outreach of God, must be the heart, soul, face and substance of the church’s stance and pastoral action.

The Italian synodal report stated, “the church-home does not have doors that close, but a perimeter that continually widens.” We in the United States must seek a church whose doors do not close and a perimeter that continually widens if we are to have any hope of attracting the next generation to life in the church, or of being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must enlarge our tent. And we must do so now.”

“The ‘intrinsically disordered’ language is a disservice”

The following is an exchange between Cardinal McElroy and America executive editor Ashley McKinless, co-host of the Jesuitical podcast. The interview focused on the cardinal’s earlier article in America Media.

Ashley McKinlessYou mentioned the role of women in the church as being one of the lower hanging fruits, where there’s more agreement, less official change to church teaching is needed. I think in terms of inclusion, the other group that often comes up in these conversations is L.G.B.T. Catholics.

And I think, one, there’s not as much agreement in the U.S. and in the global church about how we should approach LGBT Catholics. And two, we have this language about homosexuality being intrinsically disordered, and the distinction you mentioned in your piece about orientation and sexual activity. Is that a place where you would advocate for change in that language and in church discipline?

Cardinal McElroy: I’ve said for some years I felt, and others have too, that the ‘intrinsically disordered’ language is a disservice. The problem is, it’s used in the catechism as a philosophical term, but to us in our country and really most of the world, disorder is thought of as psychological. It’s a terrible word and it should be taken out of the catechism.

On the question of the distinction between activity and orientation, the point I was trying to make in the article was God’s embrace of LGBT people, like the church’s embrace, should [not] be [based on] whether they’re [sexually] active or not; that should not determine whether we seek to include people, reach out to them, look on them as fellow strivers with strengths and weaknesses and areas where they’re doing well.

It’s terrible word and it should be taken out of the catechism.

It is not that the difference between activity and orientation doesn’t matter. It does. But that shouldn’t be the foundation for how we approach LGBT people. We should across the board be saying, “We look on you like us: people who are trying in often difficult circumstances to live our lives here in this world, to live by the Gospel, knowing that we fail, knowing that sometimes we fail time and again in the same area.” That’s one of the things about human nature.

When I was a young priest, I was hearing confessions a lot, people would come and say, “Oh, I’m so upset that I’m confessing the same sins over and over again.” That’s how we are because our personalities have a rather rigid structure to them. So that’s the framework I think for us to look on this whole L.G.B.T. question.

My pastoral vision here in San Diego is to make—and it’s hard to accomplish this—to make LGBT people feel equally welcome in the life of the church as everyone else. And so how we get from here to there—it’s hard and we take steps. But that’s my goal. And I really feel that Christ would totally agree with that. That he would want every person, every LGBT person and their families, to feel equally welcomed in the church.

James Martin, S.J.

James Martin, S.J., is the editor of Outreach and the editor at large of America Media.

All articles by James Martin, S.J.

Outreach is part of America Media. To support Outreach you can make a donation or subscribe to America.

  1. The first definition of “intrinsic” in the dictionary is “Belonging to the real nature…”

    So how can it be that the Church would expect a person to live a life that goes against their created nature? How long can the Church continue to teach what is cruel and goes against its own intrinsic nature to be merciful and loving?

    • The Church paints itself into a corner, then has not the courage the correct itself.

      What will it take to correct the Catechism? It could be done in a day. Will it take months, years, decades, centuries? Only time will tell.

      In the meantime, the self-loathing, rejection, suicides continue.

      • The call to a life-long practice of virtue of chastity is a cross that seems to big and heavy to carry, but that is what Christ, through His Church is asking of many. Immensely difficult? Yes. Impossible? Not with the help of Christ and His Mother. Only by fully accepting and embracing Christ and His Cross, and all that entails, and can one be freed of any self-loathing, rejection and suicide. Only by leaning on Him totally, and a full consecration to His Sacred Heart and to Mary Immaculate, can one experience true happiness and peace, and find one’s full value as a child of God. You are in my prayers.

        • 1. With the hostile language and an oppressive atmosphere within the church and many families, most young people feel they they are pushed out at a very early age.

          2. How can they ever develop a mature and growing relationship with Jesus or come close to developing an informed conscience to access the graces necessary to grow in their baptismal faith? Such things grow and develop decade by decade throughout our lives.

          3. A moral theology teacher at the seminary was once asked how it is that priests can live out their lives of celibacy, which seems to be a very difficult way of life? He responded saying priests receive a special grace through their ordination that helps them live a life of celibacy. And yet, LGBTQ individuals are required to just figure it out on their own.