A story first reported in English last week by the Jesuit magazine America notes Pope Francis has told a group of Italian parents that God and the Catholic Church love their LGBTQ children as they are, adding that the Catholic Church does not exclude their children. That story (largely as a word-for-word lift from the original) is making the rounds of the mainstream press, from the New York Post to the UK’s Daily Mail.
While the bare facts of the story are true — America accurately reported Francis’s words — the facts don’t begin to suffice for truthful reporting. The current pope has a troubling record on LGBTQ issues, his anti-gay and anti-trans actions often deeply at odds with his widely reported words of tolerance.
More on that later, but first, here’s what has happened.
A group of pro-LGBTQ parents met with Pope Francis
Last Wednesday, Pope Francis met briefly at the Vatican with a group of about 40 Italian parents who call themselves Tenda di Gionata, Jonathan’s Tent in English.
The group represents parents who say they struggled to accept their LGBTQ children because of Church teachings. They say they aim to reconcile “homosexuality and faith.” Last May they released a free book for parents of LGBTQ children called Fortunate Parents.
The organization’s positions are very strong. In a foreword to the book, Father Gian Luca Carrega of the Diocese of Torino denounces “the ecclesial isolation that [LGBTQ children] have experienced.” In light of Vatican anti-LGBTQ policies, he expresses deep skepticism about “our being Church.” That’s radical for a priest, but the organization is calling for real, transformative action.
In a YouTube video that supplements Fortunate Parents, several Italian couples talk to Jonathan’s Tent about their struggles. Though all the parents have come to accept their LGBTQ children, most had a difficult time, and all fault the Church for harming their families and their faith. Some describe their experiences with Church rejection as having triggered deep spiritual crises.
One couple recounts having no difficulty accepting their gay son, but says their parish church then rejected him.
Pope Francis declines plea to change teachings and practices
Last Wednesday, at the Vatican meeting, Maria Grassi, vice president of Jonathan’s Tent, gave Francis a copy of Fortunate Parents, saying she told him, “We found a new way of looking that enabled us to see in [our LGBTQ children] the beauty and love of God.” She told him she wanted to build a bridge to the Church so that it can also change, can “stop excluding” LGBTQ people, can find a way to “fully welcome” them.
Francis’s reply, which America framed as a positive message of LGBTQ inclusion, seems actually to have been a refusal to admit a problem. According to Grassi, the pope told her, “The church does not exclude them because she loves them deeply.” He added, “The church loves your children as they are because they are children of God.”
If Grassi and the other members of Jonathan’s Tent had been hoping for assurances that Francis would take action to change the Church, they must have left disappointed with his denial that a problem exists. I doubt many Italians misunderstand the problem as thoroughly as Francis seems to.
Italy is the least LGBTQ-accepting nation in western Europe
While the western part of Europe is widely seen as accepting LGBTQ people almost without reservation, Italy is a very different story, with high levels of intolerance that queer people in Italy lay entirely at the feet of the Roman Catholic Church.
Rainbow Europe has ranked Italy as the worst place in western Europe for LGBTQ people to live. Same-sex couples have to put up with civil unions as a second-class form of marriage and may not adopt children except in exceptional circumstances. Same-sex couples who adopt or have children by surrogacy abroad are usually unable to have their parental rights recognized at home. Prominent Catholic Church leaders in Italy fight hard against civil equality for LGBTQ people. Some have even preached that natural disasters are God’s judgement against same-sex civil unions.
Francis’s actions stand in opposition to his words
While the current pope has often said things that sound at least mildly supportive of LGBTQ people, his actions have shown him to be far less tolerant than people like to believe.
- He has approved an official Vatican document making the absurd claim, contrary to medical science, that transgender people annihilate nature. The document echoes his earlier, personal remarks denying the transgender experience, falsely calling it a choice rather than an innate human characteristic.
- He has hardened a 2005 ban on gay men entering seminary, using highly inflammatory language in private meetings, reports leaking that he believes gay men tend not to be mentally stable enough or trustworthy enough to train for the priesthood.
- In 2018 in unscripted remarks at a Vatican audience, he proclaimed that families headed by LGBTQ people are not real families, that the only families that count in the eyes of the Church are ones headed by heterosexual couples.
- Also in 2018, he suggested parents should seek psychiatric intervention for gay teenagers, implying that before about the age of 20, conversion therapy can be effective. All credible mental health professional associations call such therapy ineffective and dangerous, but at least in the United States, a growing number of archdioceses have embraced Francis’s suggestion.
In the U.S. Church, rejection of LGBTQ children and adults is common
Leaving the situation in Italy to the Italians, Francis’s claim that the Roman Catholic Church does not exclude LGBTQ rings especially false here in the United States. Since same-sex marriage became legal across the country in 2015, the Church has gone on what many call a witch hunt in Catholic schools, churches, and charitable institutions — firing LGBTQ staff members who marry, live in partnership, or advocate for equality for those who do.
Not even musicians are exempt, as this former Catholic music director in Detroit can testify after being fired from her job of three decades — for the “crime” of being a lesbian.
While many Catholic leaders and even teenage students are standing up and saying no to bigotry, being an out gay person remains the fastest way to be kicked out of any Catholic institution. One Catholic school last year even threatened to deny a student his diploma if he didn’t stop supporting LGBTQ equality in public.
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Conversion therapy among U.S. Catholic leaders
Many U.S. Catholic leaders are turning to conversion therapy, which is making huge inroads in popularity in the Church. Several archdioceses partner officially with agencies that contract out conversion therapy training for lay leaders, and several others partner informally.
Churches and schools have encouraged teenagers to enter counseling to stop being gay or transgender. This girl was blackmailed for years into participating in counseling she neither wanted nor needed.
Another girl committed suicide after years of such therapy destroyed her mental health.
Church propaganda hurts LGBTQ kids and their families
Many Americans invest in the life of the Catholic Church or send their children to Catholic schools without thinking deeply about the consequences if their children happen to be members of gender or sexual minorities.
Many parents (Catholic and non-Catholic) place their children in academically excellent Catholic schools without considering that their children might learn to model anti-LGBTQ discrimination they as parents abhor. They might not consider the moral consequences of their children experiencing the current anti-LGBTQ witchhunt in Catholic institutions.
Instead, people tend to remember Francis’s famous “Who am I to judge” or last week’s kind-sounding words about “the Church loves your children as they are.” They believe the Church has become progressive, even pro-LGBTQ.
The reality is far more complicated.
Catholic churches and schools are often cruel and unhealthy places for LGBTQ teens to grow up. And while some congregations are accepting and even affirming, priests manage that feat only by defying dogma and doctrine. Often, they suffer for it. The Church does not love LGBTQ people, not in any ordinary sense of the word love. The Church actively excludes LGBTQ people every day and constantly.
Pope Francis’s statement to the Jonathon’s Tent parents was simply not true. There’s no way to gloss over that fact. And it’s critical that parents understand the reality.
America magazine and press everywhere need to do better reporting. Too much is at stake for anything less. Enough propaganda about Francis and the Catholic Church accepting LGBTQ people. They don’t, and reporting to the contrary serves no good purpose.
James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.