Why Catholicism’s Relationship With LGBT Rights Is Getting Super Awkward


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For almost two years now, both progressives and conservatives have written at length about Pope Francis’ new, more conciliatory tone towards LGBT people. In addition to his famous response to a question about gay priests in 2013 — “Who am I to judge?” — many liberal Catholics have praised the pontiff’s willingness to appoint more moderate bishops than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. In the United States, this has given rise to a fresh crop of leaders more concerned with tackling poverty than, say, opposing same-sex marriage. The prevailing logic is that this new breed of bishop won’t necessarily change Church teaching on homosexuality, but if they simply avoid old “culture wars” altogether, they can remove Catholicism from protracted battles over LGBT rights and maybe even reorient the church’s energy away from anti-gay theology over time.

In practice, however, this emerging band of American bishops hasn’t actually avoided debates over LGBT issues at all, and their relationship with equality advocates is getting, well, kind of awkward.

Take, for instance, Monday’s announcement that Bishop John C. Wester, of Salt Lake City, Utah, will replace retiring prelate Michael Sheehan as the Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, an archdiocese that claims around 320,000 Catholics. Although the appointment surprised few, Wester’s relatively even-handed position on LGBT issues did receive nominal coverage. Michael O’Loughlin, national reporter for the Catholic news publication Crux, called Wester a “Pope Francis Bishop,” a phrase similar to those used during the recent elevation Archbishop Blase Cupich, a moderate and so-called “American Pope Francis” who took over the post of a well-known opponent of LGBT rights in Chicago last year.

“Wester is considered a moderate in the American hierarchy,” O’Loughlin wrote.

Indeed, Wester and his predecessor do exhibit subtle differences on LGBT rights — at least at first glance. Sheehan, who was required by the Vatican to submit a letter of resignation when he turned 75 late last year, was a firm public champion of traditional Catholicism during his tenure. He blasted unmarried couples who live together in a 2011 letter, declaring “there are only two lifestyles acceptable to Jesus Christ for His disciples: a single life of chastity, or the union of man and woman in the Sacrament of Matrimony.” Wester, by contrast, established the first Catholic home for victims of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, and when Utah lawmakers passed landmark legislation granting workplace and housing protections for LGBT people in exchange for religious freedom protections, Wester told the National Catholic Reporter he supported the new law because it was “in line with our Catholic social teaching,” later adding “the Catholic Church does not discriminate.”

But on closer inspection, the rhetoric of Wester and other new archbishops paints a complex picture of the Catholic Church’s position on LGBT rights. On the one hand, the tempered language of Wester and Cupich is a far cry from firebrand bishops appointed under Pope Benedict XVI. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, for example, was promoted by Benedict after playing a key role in supporting Proposition 8, California’s short-live ban on same-sex marriage, and continues to stoke the ire of LGBT advocates in the Bay Area to this day.

But while Wester and other new bishops aren’t waging Cordileone-style campaigns against LGBT equality, they do generally share his conservative understandings of homosexuality, and are often called on to repeat that fact during ongoing debates over marriage equality. Wester, like Cupich, has publicly upheld the Catholic Church’s historic opposition to same-sex marriage on multiple occasions, and called Utah’s embrace of marriage equality in 2013 “an affront to an institution that is at once sacred and natural.” More importantly, while his support for the new Utah LGBT protections law has been echoed by moderate and conservative Catholics alike, many activists argue the compromise — although a major achievement for equality advocates in the Beehive state — is not an ideal model for the rest of the country. Its wide-ranging religious exemptions are a testament to diplomacy, but are really only commonplace in deeply-religious Utah, where many laws already have religious exemptions. If the same exemptions were instituted in many other states, it would generally would be a step backward for LGBT rights.

Perhaps most awkward of all, even if the Catholic Church were able to secure broad religious exemptions from nondiscrimination laws under the banner of religious liberty, it’s unclear whether their own faithful would allow them to justify excluding LGBT people. A fast-growing movement of American Catholics — the majority of whom now support same-sex marriage — is seeking to end the expulsion of Catholic employees who are publicly gay, something the church has done several times over the past few years (including the firing of a gay man in Cupich’s own archdiocese). Teachers and students have staged protests and walk-outs at Catholic schools across the country in recent months, with advocates in California, Iowa, Ohio, and other states urging their leadership to repeal policies that discriminate against LGBT people. And just this past weekend, representatives from a number of progressive Catholic organizations gathered in Chicago, Illinois to strategize ways to stop the firings of gay Catholic employees.

Taken together, this whirlwind of changes puts Wester and other archbishops in an uncomfortable position. Presumably elevated by Francis for, among other things, their more moderate take on LGBT issues, they are entering a political climate where religious Americans — Catholics included — have become increasingly wary of anyLGBT exclusion. Even tepid opposition to LGBT rights now plays poorly with the faithful: after a religious liberty law in Indiana sparked a media circus last month for its potential to be used as an excuse to discriminate, bishops in the Hoosier state, who passionately endorsed the legislation in February, quietly published an oddly-phrased letter that appeared to take both sides of the issue.

“The Catholic Church is convinced that every human being is created in the image of God,” the letter read. “This includes the right to the basic necessities for living a good life, including adequate healthcare, housing, education, and work. The Catholic Church teaches that the principle of religious freedom also is rooted in the dignity of the human person. Religious freedom is one of the most cherished rights in the U.S. Constitution. The rights of a person should never be used inappropriately in order to deny the rights of another. We are called to justice and mercy.”

If the paragraph above sounds strained, it should — the Indiana situation clearly tested the boundaries of Catholic teaching on the issue. But for Wester and others, it’s just part of the job: they, with the blessing of Pope Francis, are tasked with walking an uneven line moving forward, and while they may hope to avoid conflict by lifting up the Utah compromise, it’s unlikely that Catholic supporters of LGBT rights will make their lives easier anytime soon.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress