Professor believes Francis sees road to lasting change as a long one
By Colleen Walsh
The disclosure this week of Pope Francis’ support of same-sex civil unions sent shockwaves through the Catholic Church and progressive and conservative circles alike. It came in a papal interview in “Francesco,” a documentary that premiered Wednesday, and represented a major break with Vatican teaching, leaving many wondering whether an official change might be coming soon. In the film Francis says, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.” The Gazette spoke with Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Parkman Professor of Divinity and professor of comparative theology, about the pope’s comments and what they mean for members of the Catholic LGBTQ community.
GAZETTE: What was your reaction when you heard about the pope’s comments on same-sex unions?
CLOONEY: On the one hand, it’s not surprising at all, because Archbishop Bergoglio [now Pope Francis] struggled with the issue of formal marriage relationships when he was in Argentina and pointed to a compromise such as calling same-sex unions civil unions and not marriage. This debate is similar to what we went through in this country a decade or so ago. But I think Francis’ openness to same-sex unions is also more fundamentally representative of his instinct that human beings have a right to be together, a right to union, a right to family, and therefore, that it would be unjust to provide no way at all for people to live together as a couple. I think it’s his basic sense of human compassion and his openness to finding ways to help people to live the lives that they feel they must live.
On the other hand, you can’t imagine previous popes speaking in this fashion. That doesn’t mean that someone like John Paul was not a compassionate person, but they were so clearly linked to, focused on, church doctrine, and the preservation of marriage between a male and a female and, given their attitudes toward homosexuality, they simply wouldn’t speak in this fashion, whatever they may personally have felt. And I think what is new here is that Francis, as all the reports say, is in the non-authoritative context of a documentary — not sitting on the chair of Peter as pope making a proclamation — speaking his mind as probably most Catholics in the West would also speak their minds and say, “Well yes, some kind of way to allow people to live their lives happily and in peace is what matters.”
GAZETTE: Does this change anything about the church’s overall doctrine?
CLOONEY: Probably not, because he hasn’t pushed it that far in terms of recognizing gay marriages. But implicitly, it’s undercutting the rhetoric that being gay is a grave disorder or that being gay and living out a gay commitment is something that God disapproves of. Francis is taking a positive attitude and therefore changing the climate, even if there are going to be Catholics who resist this greatly.
GAZETTE: I know Bishop Thomas J. Tobin in Providence, R.I., has come out very strongly against this. Do you expect an even greater backlash from conservative and other voices in the church?
CLOONEY: Yes, but not as much as one might think. This news is based on a documentary, and it’s in keeping with things Francis has said previously. Conservative critics are not going to be surprised by this, even if they will be very annoyed by it. People who are against any compromise in this direction will see this as another sign that Francis has gone astray, that he is not adhering to church teaching. And they will add this to their list of complaints about him, even though he’s the pope and deserving of their respect. You may recall much earlier in his papacy, when people asked him about his thoughts on homosexuality, he said “Who am I to judge people in their lives?” This is Francis, and for many, this is a wonderful Francis; but for some, it’s the Francis they can’t abide, and they will continue to protest.
GAZETTE: Can you see him pressing this forward to doctrinal change?
CLOONEY: Several years ago, when there was discussion with the pope and some of the bishops about divorced and remarried Catholics returning to Communion, Francis didn’t bite the bullet and declare that they’re welcome back to Communion if they’re in a stable second marriage. But he said that good priests, who know how to be pastoral, will know how to relate to people. It was as if to say: If a couple who are divorced and remarried comes to you, you’ll help them to find their way. My sense is that Francis is not the man as pope, particularly going on 10 years into his papacy, to be making declarations that push the church where it’s not ready to go. But rather, again, he is giving a green light, really, to priests and others involved in counseling couples to say we have to find ways to welcome Catholics as they are: Be pastoral; be like Jesus. And I think this opens the door, even though it will be controversial in some circles, to saying couples who are in a same-sex marriage are members of the parish and welcome in Catholic worshipping communities. Of course, in some dioceses, such couples will not be welcome to Communion. There will be differences in response and pastoral practice. So I think what is at stake is a kind of incremental pastoral disposition, whereby things will change, as they always have, only slowly. The pope is saying things that other popes never would have said previously. But I don’t see Francis being in the position to make any kind of daring pronouncement in the years to come about gay marriage. I wouldn’t anticipate that coming.
For my generation she was Margaret, without the nun’s habit; for the previous generation she was Sr Benvenuta, in full canonical clothing. For both generations her office in UCD became a place where secrets could become shared and thus diminished burdens, opprobrium eschewed and independence of mind encouraged.
I came to appreciate Margaret MacCurtain’s tenaciousness over 30 years and let me pay tribute to her on the occasion of her 90th birthday; to applaud her humanity, humour and brilliant teaching, and also her stubbornness, determination and creative subversion.
MacCurtain’s life and work reflect the second wave of the feminist movement in Ireland that emerged in the late 1960s, a reminder that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the announcement of a commission on the status of women. The commission’s report was published in 1972 and, alongside its many recommendations, expressed the aspiration that women would retrieve their own history.
MacCurtain was drawn towards the idea of the sun coming through a gap ‘because a gap between the fields in Ireland is usually a hostile gap’
MacCurtain embraced this challenge with gusto, despite the fact that, as she recalled: “Writing women into Irish history became a subversive activity for women historians in the 1970s. The universities were not ready for an innovation which, in the opinion of the historical establishment, possessed neither a sound methodology nor reliable sources.”
Despite such hindrance, as MacCurtain has recalled, there was a sense of optimism and determination about challenging this resistance in the 1970s, and for MacCurtain this involved building alliances within and outside academia. At a debate in UCD in October 1971, MacCurtain shared a lecture theatre platform with Mary Anderson and Nell McCafferty. Anderson suggested each of them make a short opening statement about the personal difficulties under which they laboured as women.
Anderson said: “I am a bastard.”
McCafferty said: “I am a lesbian.”
MacCurtain said: “I am a nun.”
McCafferty recalled: “The audience erupted in yells of pure, unadulterated pleasure. The exchanges that evening were a runaway train of untrammelled speech.”
That train ran into many barriers in subsequent years as there was still much resistance to equality and vocal women, but MacCurtain underlined the significance of translating alliances into meaningful retrieval of women’s history. Her mission was a way of giving meaning to her assertion, the previous decade, that the question of education “now lies within the domain of justice”.
MacCurtain remained a historian of the Reformation centuries; it gave her a wider sense not just of divisions in Ireland but also of common inheritances, including the heritage of the Middle Ages. But the spirituality that interested this Dominican sister most was non-sacramental; she recognised the greatness of Patrick Kavanagh and his epic poem The Great Hunger (1942) because he brought out both the longings and spirituality of the small farmers. Kavanagh had laid bare frustrations and suffocations, but also the moments of discovery:
“Yet sometimes when the sun comes through a gap
These men know God the Father in a tree:
The Holy Spirit in the rising sap,
And Christ will be the green leaves that will come
At Easter from the sealed and guarded tomb.”
MacCurtain was drawn towards the idea of the sun coming through a gap “because a gap between the fields in Ireland is usually a hostile gap”, and “you don’t go though gaps easily”.
MacCurtain was the nun coming through the gap when it came to the retrieval of the history of Irish women and wider questions of justice and equality, and it was a hostile gap from which she had to emerge.
That is why, as well as being full of humanity, and carrying an older, Celtic spirituality, she had to be tough and brave in order to open up what she described as “a locked room in the memory . . . the time comes when you have to take it out and honour it”; to go beyond a self-centred quest “for a meaning to ‘my’ life”. She was a champion of what became one of the most important aspects of the women’s liberation movement: personal testimony born of personal experience; and, as she recognised, “there was no break in the development of Irish feminism”.
I thought of all these things as Lyra McKee was laid to rest after that extraordinary funeral on Wednesday; the funeral of a gay woman, from a Catholic background in Belfast, who found a home, love and, ironically, a horrible death in the Derry cauldron as a ceasefire baby, after which the failed politicians were shamed into standing exposed.
Margaret MacCurtain campaigned for an Ireland in which McKee could find solace and purpose. MacCurtain championed what she called “that larger dimension of history, that seeks to reconcile and synthesise the past, rather than divide people into camps and set antitheses between ethnic groups and religious sects”.
McKee had to emerge from a hostile gap to do that too; real leaders lead when they emerge from that gap, despite the vicious snipers who stand in their way.
Pope Francis has told the parents of LGBT+ children to love them as they are “because they are children of God” in a groundbreaking meeting.
The pope met with 40 parents of LGBT+ children on Wednesday (17 September) to hear their concerns about the church’s disregard for their families.
The parents, all associated with the LGBT+ Catholic parents’ organisation Tenda di Gionata, told Pope Francis about the cold climate their queer children faced in the church when they came out, Avventire.itreports.
At the end of the meeting, the group’s vice president Mara Grassi gave Pope Francis a copy of a Fortunate Families by Mary Ellen Lopata, which details the experiences of Catholic parents of queer children.
He was also given a rainbow-coloured t-shirt emblazoned with the words: “In love there is no fear”.
“He looked and smiled,” Grassi said of the presentation. She called the meeting “a moment of deep harmony that we will not forget”.
Closing out the meeting, Pope Francis told the gathered parents: “Love your children as they are, because they are children of God.”
Speaking after the event, Grassi said their organisation wants to create a dialogue between LGBT+ people and the Catholic church.
“Taking a cue from the title of the book we presented to him, I explained that we consider ourselves lucky because we have been forced to change the way we have always looked at our children,” she said.
“What we now have is a new gaze that has allowed us to see the beauty and love of God in them.
“We want to create a bridge with the church so that the church too can change its gaze towards our children, no longer excluding them but welcoming them fully.”
LGBT+ parents gave Pope Francis letters about their experiences of raising queer children.
The group also gave Pope Francis letters written by parents of LGBT+ children, detailing their painful journeys to acceptance in the face of anti-LGBT+ sentiment in their church.
In one letter, a woman identified as Anna B told Pope Francis that her son knew he would only be loved by his parents if he “suffocated” his true identity.
She explained that she became involved with an LGBT+ Christian group in an effort to better understand her son’s identity after he came out as gay.
The meeting is being hailed as a significant moment of change for LGBT+ members of the Catholic church. The institution has been unwavering in its opposition to LGBT+ acceptance throughout its long history.
However, there was some hope for change among LGBT+ Catholics when Francis was appointed as the successor to Pope Benedict XVI in 2013.
In 2013, he made global headlines when he called on the Catholic church to “show mercy, not condemnation” to gay people – representing a stark shift in tone from his predecessors.
But in 2019, he told a Spanish newspaper that parents who see signs of homosexuality in their children should “consult a professional” – a comment that was considered by many to endorse conversion therapy.
Meanwhile, he has been staunch in his opposition to trans identities, comparing them to nuclear war and genetic manipulation in 2015.
In 2019, the Vatican released a document claiming that “gender ideology” is a “move away from nature”.
Banned Redemptorist priest Fr Tony Flannery (73) has declined a Vatican offer of a return to ministry if he promised silence and and signed statements on church teachings.
The offer made by Rome in July would have involved signing documentsasserting church teaching on women priests, homosexuality, same sex marriage, and gender theory
Co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, Fr Flannery was suspended in 2012 from public ministry by the Vatican for publicly expressing support for women’s ordination and same sex marriage as well as more liberal views on homosexuality.
Last February the Redemptorists’ Superior General in Rome Michael Brehl wrote to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) making representations for Fr Flannery’s return to public ministry. It , in turn, followed correspondence with him last year by the Redemptorists’ leadership in Ireland.
They did so as, under the leadership of Pope Francis, issues such as the equality and ordination of women are now freely discussed in the Church as is a more compassionate and nuanced approach to homosexuality.
The CDF responded that “Fr Flannery should not return to public ministry prior to submitting a signed statement regarding his positions on homosexuality, civil unions between persons of the same sex, and the admission of women to the priesthood.”
It said “the Irish Provincial should ask Fr Flannery to give his assent to the statement by providing his signature in each of the places indicated (enclosure).” This latter referred to separate statements asserting church teaching in each relevant area with space for Fr Flannery to sign his assent.
The CDF response continued: “After the statement is signed and received, a gradual readmission of Fr Flannery to the exercise of public ministry will be possible by way of an agreement with this Congregation. Furthermore, given the fact that he has stated numerous times that he is not a theologian, he should be asked to not speak publically on the above-mentioned topics which have caused problems in the past.”
As well as signing separate statements on each issue, Fr Flannery was also asked to sign an additional paragraph which stated “I, Fr Tony Flannery C.Ss.R, submit to all of the above doctrinal propositions given by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as they pertain to the Church’s teaching on the: 1. Reservation of the sacred priesthood to men alone; 2. The moral liceity of homosexual practices; 3. The legal recognition of marriage between persons of the same sex; and 4. ‘Gender Theory’.”
Responding to the CDF document, Fr Flannery said he was “not surprised, but disappointed and saddened” by it. “In my view it is a document that, both in tone and content, would be more at home in the 19th century. I could not possibly sign those propositions.”
The issue of equality, and ordination, of women “is now freely discussed in the Church,” he said, and that he was “on record for many years now in supporting, indeed emphasizing the necessity, of full equality for women, including ordination. How could I possibly sign that first proposition.”
The same applied to “ official Church language on homosexuality and homosexual relationships,” which he described as “appalling. I could not submit to it. As regards same sex marriage, I voted in favour of it. I don’t know enough about Gender Theory to have any strong views on it, and I don’t know where that one came from.”
He felt this was “the end of the line in terms of priestly ministry for me. I could not possibly have any more dealings with a body that produces such a document. Life is too short – especially at 73”.
Next month Fr Flannery’s latest book ‘From the Outside; Rethinking Church Doctrine’ will be published.