LGBTQ Catholics hail Pope Francis’ welcome, but hope for change

Views Michael O’Loughlin / March 9, 2023 Print this:
Choir members sing during a Mass at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City on June 25, 2022, for participants of the Outreach LGBTQ Catholic Ministry Conference. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

When Jack Whalen came out as gay, he remembers asking himself, “Is there still a place for me in the Catholic Church?”

The 26-year-old military pilot faced a host of uncertainty when he decided to tell others about his sexual orientation. He had been raised Catholic by his parents, both of whom also served in the armed forces. Mr. Whalen, along with his three siblings, followed in his parents’ footsteps, which meant he would have to consider the ramifications for his career as well. 

But the most “terrifying” consideration, as he put it, was how the revelation about his sexuality would affect his relationship with the church. After all, his faith had served as “the core tenet” of his very being.

Mr. Whalen, who lives in Texas, said it was around that time that he encountered news stories about Pope Francis and his unprecedented outreach to LGBTQ Catholics. He remembers reading about the pope’s answer to a journalist’s question about gay priests, when the pope responded, “Who am I to judge?”

Later, he was moved by the pope’s assertion that parents should not abandon their children because of their sexual orientation, because God does not abandon his children.

“That was incredible to hear,” Mr. Whalen said. “The church may not be making sweeping changes that we would like to see, but he’s opening up the door and giving us a foothold, letting us see a better future for us in the church.”

A church in flux

Over the course of his 10 years as pope, Francis has made a number of statements and gestures that are seemingly aimed at pushing the church to be more welcoming to the LGBTQ community. He meets frequently with many L.G.B.T. Catholics and those who minister to them, and recently called on Catholics to fight against laws that criminalize homosexuality.

At the same time, he has not made changes to church teaching and has been especially critical of what he calls “gender ideology.” Interviews with LGBTQ Catholics and their families in the United States and Canada show that while the outreach from Francis is welcome, questions remain about its impact in dioceses and parishes. 

Pope Francis said parents should not abandon their children because of their sexual orientation, because God does not abandon his children.

Lindsey Faust, 27, recently completed graduate studies in theology and is training to be a hospital chaplain in the Atlanta area. She said she focuses on what she calls the “non-negotiable” parts of her faith, especially the Eucharist. “That is the thing that nourishes me, that gets me through difficult times, gives me strength,” she said. 

Everything else, including even the words and gestures of a pope, follow far behind. That means she can focus on the essentials of Catholicism without worrying too much about her sexual orientation in terms of her faith life.

“I love being a queer Catholic and being a queer Catholic does not cause me a lot of strife,” Ms. Faust said. 

Ms. Faust said that Ignatian spirituality has played a significant role in her own faith life, including helping her accept her sexual orientation, and having a Jesuit pope has in some ways been more meaningful to her than having a pope express some openness to LGBTQ people.

“I usually don’t pay that much attention to what is going on at the high levels of the church,” she said. “I am enjoying my life and I’m paying attention to what it is about being Catholic that’s important to me, and that’s not what’s going on at the Vatican or at the [U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] or even, sometimes, not really what’s going on with Pope Francis.”

While she appreciates the pope’s calls for Catholics to treat LGBTQ people with more kindness, and his meetings with members of the community, she said that sometimes people place too much emphasis on statements he makes that are not, in her opinion, all that radical.

“I feel like sometimes people are really quick to make a really big deal about things that Pope Francis says that sometimes are not actually that groundbreaking,” Ms. Faust said. 

For Catholics who do turn to the pope for guidance on social issues, including homosexuality, Ms. Faust said, “I think it’s really good for them to hear” kind words from Pope Francis.

Shifting attitudes and consistent teaching

For all his welcoming words toward the LGBTQ community, Pope Francis has not changed church teaching. Homosexual acts are still considered sinful and the pope has repeatedly denounced “gender ideology,” which some have interpretted as a condemnation of transgender people. 

Jason Steidl Jack, a New York-based, gay theologian who was received into the Catholic Church as an adult, said that Pope Francis launches and encourages important conversations about human sexuality, which he believes could lead to doctrinal change in the future.

“The catechism still describes me and other folks like me as having ‘intrinsically disordered’ desires,” said Dr. Steidl Jack, 37. “So in terms of teaching, nothing has changed. But I think the pope’s pastoral redirection of the church really is important.”

Dr. Steidl Jack, the author of LGBTQ Catholic Ministry: Past and Present, said that under other recent popes, theologians and pastoral leaders who pushed the church to embrace its LGBTQ members were routinely silenced or sidelined. That has not been the case under Francis, he said.

“Pope Francis has created space for conversations to happen that couldn’t have happened before,” he said. “And quite frankly, he’s made physical space for LGBTQ Catholics in the church as well.”

He pointed specifically to the pope’s meetings with LGBTQ people as evidence of a shift in the church’s pastoral views.

“A first step is allowing queer folks to be a part of the church, to recognize their gifts,” Dr. Steidl Jack said. “After that, people will see who we are. People will see that our lives, our loves, are witness to God’s work in our lives.”

Jason Steidl-Jack: “Pope Francis has created space for conversations to happen that couldn’t have happened before.”

“And Pope Francis is enabling that to happen,” he added.

While Dr. Steidl Jack said he finds certain Vatican pronouncements on gender and sexuality to be regrettable, his decision to remain in the church is bolstered by “a pope who’s eager to listen.”

“The church isn’t known for listening, isn’t known for paying attention to marginalized communities, especially the queer community, and Pope Francis is showing us how to do it,” he said. “Pope Francis himself, I believe, has grown immensely on these issues during his time as pope and in a sense, he is leading the rest of the church in showing us how to grow.”

Helping Catholics grow in terms of embracing LGBTQ people is a goal of Yunuen Trujillo, who works with parishes in the Los Angeles area as they discern how they can be more welcoming to the LGBTQ community. Ms. Trujillo said that many of the speaking invitations she receives are born from the sentiments expressed by Pope Francis.

“This pope is asking us to be more welcoming, and we want to know how to do that,” Ms. Trujillo recalled hearing from parish leaders.

Ms. Trujillo, 36, the author of LGBTQ Catholics: A Guide to Inclusive Ministry, said she sometimes hears from Catholics who are confused about what the pope says about LGBTQ Catholics and fear that he is creating new doctrine or contradicting existing church teaching. She reminds people that the church already teaches that Catholics must respect human dignity—including that of LGBTQ people. 

On the other hand, she also hears frustration from other LGBTQ Catholics who “feel the church is not changing fast enough.”

They tell her that they wish Pope Francis would revise language in the catechism that describes homosexuality as “objectively disordered,” and she wishes that church leaders would undertake an examination of biblical texts frequently used to condemn homosexuality to correct erroneous translations and interpretations.

While it is difficult to assess the impact of the pope’s efforts on individual bishops or parishes, Ms. Trujillo said that she believes he has empowered church leaders already inclined to welcome LGBTQ people to speak more freely. 

But she worries what will follow Francis.

“I would personally feel more comfortable if I started hearing other cardinals and bishops using a more inclusive approach as well, so that there will be a continuation in the future,” she said. 

Transgender Catholics and the Vatican

While Pope Francis has won praise from many gay and lesbian Catholics, his comments about transgender issues have thus far been less supportive. In addition to the pope’s criticism of what he dubs “gender ideology,” in 2019, the Vatican released a document suggesting that the movement for transgender rights seeks to eliminate “the anthropological basis of the family.”

Yunuen Trujillo: “This pope is asking us to be more welcoming, and we want to know how to do that.”

That kind of rhetoric stings Jenny Ansier. 

After Ms. Ansier, 61, came out as a transgender woman in 2018, she attended church at a Catholic parish near Sacramento, Calif. Like many Catholics new to a parish, Ms. Ansier had sat toward the back and headed out immediately after Mass ended.

But at the invitation of a parish staff member, Ms. Ansier became more involved. She greeted parishioners before Mass, volunteered at the parish’s community suppers and helped with technology during the Covid-19 shutdowns. The lifelong Catholic felt like she had found a spiritual home.

Eventually, Ms. Ansier signed up to serve as a lector, overcoming her lifelong fear of public speaking through practice and sheer willpower. She knew that some in the congregation might be uncomfortable with a transgender person occupying such a visible role during Mass, but “I didn’t think about any of those dissenters in the audience,” she recalled. “I was only thinking of trying to do the reading as authentically as I could.”

After Mass, Ms. Ansier was heartened by warm words from other parishioners, who eventually elected her to serve on the parish council.

But a few weeks ago, Ms. Ansier said, she received word from parish leaders that she would no longer be allowed to participate in visible ministry roles at the church because of a directive from the diocesan chancery. She was devastated.

Reflecting on Pope Francis’s outreach to LGBTQ Catholics, Ms. Ansier said she is happy that he appears to have a softer touch when it comes to rhetoric and appreciates his meetings with other transgender people. But she said that his efforts are limited if “extremists” in the church fail to embrace his message.

“I’m happy that Pope Francis has some empathy for us,” Ms. Ansier said. She said the pope’s comments about LGBTQ people generate news coverage which lead to conversations in the parish. But she points to her experience being barred from ministry as evidence that not much has actually changed on the ground. If she were able to meet Pope Francis, she would tell him how coming out as a trans woman empowered her to live her life as God intended.

“Yes, you’re against the anthropological part of it,” Ms. Ansier imagines telling Pope Francis. “But what about the good things that happened?”

“I’m able to live and use the skills and gifts that God gave me,” she said. “I wasn’t able to use them before, but now I can.”

As the father of three adult children who identify as either gay, bisexual or transgender, Mike Hyland has seen firsthand how negative attitudes in the church can drive away LGBTQ people.

Mr. Hyland, 74, runs an annual retreat for other Catholic parents of L.G.B.T. children near his home outside Toronto, Ontario. He said that back in 2013, when Francis made his “Who am I to judge?” comments, he thought, “Maybe it’s possible for our baptized, fully initiated Catholic children to have a place in the church without the need to hide.”

“Under his papacy, the LGBT community has been noticed, affirmed and welcomed into the church,” Mr. Hyland said.

Since then, he has been further encouraged by the pope’s outreach—albeit with an important caveat.

“Under his papacy, the LGBTQ community has been noticed, affirmed and welcomed into the church,” Mr. Hyland said. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t funneled down to the local or diocesan level.”

He said his children do not feel welcome at church and that if he had an opportunity to speak to Pope Francis, he would encourage the pope “to challenge bishops and priests, to encourage them to open their doors to the LGBTQ community” and “to open himself to the stories of transgender people.”

“I’d want him to know that our children are good and loving people, caring people who are suffering, I think, because of closed doors in the church,” Mr. Hyland said.

Back in Texas, Jack Whalen said he feels fortunate to have been able to reconcile his faith with his sexuality. He will celebrate his marriage to his husband, Romeo, later this year. He laughed when recounting how the pair had met, each attracted to the other in part because they both had identified themselves as Catholic on a dating app. Today, they both remain active in their faith, and Romeo even serves on his parish council.

Mr. Whalen said he was lucky that his family was so supportive when he came out, but that he understands why some LGBTQ Catholics are wary of entering a church, especially since he and his husband hail from “very conservative Midwestern backgrounds.”

He hopes bishops and priests follow the pope’s lead and use more inclusive language in homilies and show LGBTQ people in positions of leadership, because he knows many other gay Catholics who have left the church. “I really worry that we’re going to lose a lot of people who would otherwise make the church very relevant in the 21st century,” he said.

But for now, Mr. Whalen is focused on planning his wedding celebration. He says that despite the challenges that come with trying to continue practicing his Catholic faith as a gay man, he plans to stick it out. He credits that decision to a lesson he learned from his parents, that when one encounters something they find to be unjust, it is easier to make change from within.

“The church is a very slow-moving organization in terms of change,” Mr. Whalen said. “But one day, in my lifetime, maybe it will eventually become a more welcoming place, step by step.”

This article has been co-published with America Media.

Michael O’Loughlin

Michael J. O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America and author of "Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear." Twitter: @mikeoloughlin

All articles by Michael O’Loughlin

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

1 Comment
  1. While Pope Francis has opened the door to change in the Church, ultimately because many in the church are conservative traditionalists that won’t be welcoming of us. I am a gay person questioning their gender and I hold Christian beliefs and was previously a Catholic. However, I have been turned away from Catholicism because I have only received rejection from the community. It’s funny to me that Catholicism, which is built on love and the dignity of every human person, cannot spare empathy for a community that has been oppressed for so long.

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