Pope Francis May Have Improved The Catholic Church’s Image, But I’m Still Not Going Back

In the areas closest to my heart, my conclusion is that the Catholic Church has improved its public relations much more than its actual substance.

Like many ex-Catholics, I pay careful attention to the words of Pope Francis. I left the church when I came out as a lesbian in my mid-20s and Pope Francis’ early statements about homosexuality gave me hope of a more inclusive Catholic Church. He appears to have the heart that has long been lacking in my experience of Catholicism. For a time I even hoped that I could return to the Church without sacrificing who I am as a lesbian, a mother, and a woman. I miss the rituals of Catholicism and the unity of belonging to a world wide church.

Unfortunately, much of the hope I get from listening to Pope Francis dissipates when I look at the actual behavior of the Catholic Church in recent years. The progress in the areas of inclusion, sexual abuse prevention, and women rights is discouraging.

In the early months of Pope Francis’ tenure, he appeared ready to soften the Catholic Church’s extreme stance against homosexuality. In a now famous quote he asserted, “Who am I to judge them (homosexuals) if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?”

The views were a welcome step forward from the prior reign. Pope Benedict XIV argued that homosexuality was a threat to “justice and peace” in the world. He allegedly had no issue in providing his blessing to a Ugandan parliament member who had recently introduced legislation to make homosexuality punishable by death. The Vatican later claimed that this report was false, but offered no condemnation of the Ugandan bill.

Unfortunately, Pope Francis’ less judgmental stance did not extend to full acceptance of gays and lesbians in the Church. In 2014, the Pope closed the door on the acceptance of same-sex parenting by stating that all children deserve a mother and father. Earlier this month he denied recognition to same-sex unions when he wrote “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

Essentially, the progress gained by gays and lesbians under Pope Francis is that we are no longer to be shunned or killed just because of our “inclinations.” However, the Catholic Church is a long way from accepting our romantic relationships and families. The fact that Pope Francis’ more compassionate direction appears so progressive really only emphasizes how hateful the Church’s prior stance was. Actual progress in supporting gays and lesbians in how we live our lives is non-existent.

As a lesbian mama, I take particular offense at my parenting being denounced by an institution with such a well-documented history of sexual abuse. The Catholic Church assumes a preposterous moral high ground by presuming to “protect” children from gays and lesbians when they have repeatedly failed to protect children from the pedophiles in the clergy. I originally hoped that Pope Francis would encourage healing by toughening the Catholic Church’s law and practice toward cases of sexual abuse.

In 2014, the Pope announced a zero tolerance policy toward clergy guilty of sexual abuse. Publicly he has cultivated an image of the gentle shepherd by showing playfulness and benevolence toward children. However, within the Catholic Church itself, he has made minimal changes regarding the removal of offending clergy. Less than one third of priests with credible allegations against them have been removed from the Church.

Even worse, he has failed to revise Catholic law to hold clergy responsible for stopping future acts of abuse. In 2014, the Pope declined a request from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to institute mandatory reporting of child abuse within the Catholic Church.

Given the numbers of known offenders still holding positions in the Church and the fact that the Pope holds on to the right to keep new allegations private, there is scarce reason to believe the Church is truly invested in protecting children. They are more inclined to use notions of children’s well-being to irrationally keep gay and lesbian parents from full acceptance within our society.

The Church has long organized itself so as to maintain a strong level of control over certain oppressed groups. Women are the most notable example. While the Pope at least gave early hope for changes around issues of gays and lesbians in the Church and the sexual abuse scandal, he offered no such olive branch to women. From the beginning, Pope Francis declared the subject of woman priests “closed.”

In fact, the Church seems more interested in regaining slipping control over women, particularly with respect to reproductive choice. Having an abortion is supposed to result in excommunication from the Church—a huge deterrent to some women, especially in places where church membership is equated with social standing.

However, Catholic Church law is not applied equitably in this case. Most priests in the United States have long had standing permission to “forgive” women for abortion, meaning they can restore a woman’s good standing in the Church. The threat of excommunication is not powerful enough to greatly influence women’s reproductive decisions in the United States. Here, the Church either has to offer “forgiveness” or lose congregants. The rest of the world has far less latitude.

This exposes a huge hypocrisy around how the Church responds to women having abortions. Unless we assume that women in the United States are inherently more deserving of compassion than women elsewhere, we are left to conclude that the decision not to offer “forgiveness” in other places has really just been about the Church wielding power where it can and because it can.

But the Church’s influence is slipping in many places besides the United States, so Pope Francis in specifically addressing abortion as part of this year’s jubilee. A jubilee year is a time of forgiveness for the Catholic Church, and for this year only, priests around the globe have been given discretion to “forgive” women for past abortions. All women now have the same temporary opportunity to rejoin the Church just as Americans have for years. The stated rationale for the dispensation revolves around compassion, but in practice, it’s more a tool of manipulation.

Instead of pushing women who have had abortions outside of the Church, this one-time chance of “forgiveness” channels them back to their parish priests. The priests will require assurances of penitence, forcing women to resubmit to the patriarchy of the Church. Because the Church never misses an opportunity to grow its coffers, gaining “forgiveness” will also likely require paying off the priest. In return, women gain back lost social standing and, for the true believers, the hope of going to heaven. This is how the Catholic Church expresses “compassion” for women.

In the end, the attention I have given to Pope Francis’ words has mostly led me to a greater understanding of the Catholic Church’s limitations. I do see some positive changes, particularly with regards to Pope Francis’ emphasis on good works over bureaucracy. I know the world is full of many wonderful Catholics who are accepting and truly loving, even in areas where the Church is not. But I reject a Church that cannot see that I am a good mother to my son. I reject a Church where children are not protected from the clergy. And I reject the idea that a priest should have any sway over a woman’s reproductive choice.

In the areas closest to my heart, my conclusion is that the Catholic Church has improved its public relations much more than its actual substance.

Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about parenting, disability, and family life from her perspective as a lesbian mama. She has been published in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamamia, and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives in Chicago with her partner and son.

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