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LGBTQ people need justice, not mercy, from Pope Francis

 |  Grace on the Margins

It's been nearly two and a half years since Pope Francis uttered his now-legendary "Who am I to judge?" statement while aboard the papal plane.

Since that fateful in-flight press conference, I have been told countless times (often by well-meaning, heterosexual Catholics) that I should find hope and comfort in the pope because he has opened up the doors to mercy for me and my lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer friends.

But mercy, it seems to me, is not the door that LGBTQ people need opened to them. Mercy is an act of love, compassion or service given to those who sin or are afflicted in some way. LGBTQ people, same-sex relationships, and transgender persons are not sins or afflictions.

Some Catholics have tried to convince me that the doors of mercy have a connecting corridor to the doors of justice. "A change in tone can eventually effect a change in teaching," I've heard more than once (usually from folks with a much more privileged place in the church than my out LGBTQ friends and I have).

But Pope Francis' refusal to speak out against draconian anti-homosexuality laws during his recent trip to three African nations, his continued condemnations of same-sex marriage laws, his ongoing glorification of heterosexual marriage ("God's masterwork," as he calls it), and the ceaseless firings of LGBTQ employees of Catholic institutions leave me unconvinced that doors of mercy and justice are somehow adjoined.

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The pope's latest statement on "homosexual people" came last week in his new, book-length interview with Andrea Tornielli, published under the title The Name of God is Mercy.

When Tornielli asks him about his "Who am I to judge?" statement, the pope reasserts that he "was paraphrasing by heart the Cate­chism of the Catholic Church where it says that these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized."

"I am glad that we are talking about 'ho­mosexual people' because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity," the pope continues. "And people should not be defined only by their sexual ten­dencies."

Francis then expresses his hope that "homosexual people" will "come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it."

Though the words sound pastoral, the pope remains vague about what ought to be confessed, what it means to stay close to the Lord, and what precisely "the way" should be for LGBTQ people.

Given the fact that the pope reasserts the teaching of the catechism, given his previous criticisms of marriage equality and same-sex parenting, and given his ongoing insistence that same-sex relationships are not sacramental, one is left to deduce that he still hopes that LGBTQ people will try to honor traditional church teachings: That is, to refrain from sexual relationships and to not equate our families with the traditional heterosexual model of family.

Ultimately, the pope leaves us to assume that LGBTQ people are in need of some type of mercy and forgiveness that heterosexuals, by their very natures, do not need.

As long as that is the disposition of the pope and the church, we LGBTQ Catholics will always be left to believe that, regardless of our gifts or the quality of love in our lives, in the eyes of the church we will never be equal to our fellow straight Catholics. And as long as that is the case, we will continue to be marginalized by our church.

I do not mean to suggest that the pope's call to increased delicacy and decreased marginalization does not have the potential to ease the burden on some LGBTQ persons, particularly those who are ostracized by their family members or faith communities.

I am suggesting that "showing greater mercy" towards LGBTQ Catholics will not get at the root of what ails our relationship with the church. Why? Because treating us with mercy presupposes that we, by our very natures, are in a state of sin or affliction and are in need of forgiveness.

The truth is, gays and lesbians do not need mercy for falling in love with someone of the same sex. My transgender friends do not need the church's mercy for striving to become the persons they believe God made them to be. LGBTQ couples do not need forgiveness for being in loving relationships. These are not sins. There is nothing to forgive.

If LGBTQ persons need mercy and forgiveness, it is for reasons that are no different from the reasons heterosexuals need mercy, like when we fail to be generous, patient, supportive, respectful, kind, compassionate, or faithful.

The irony here is that if anyone should be asking for mercy, it is the Catholic hierarchy. The institutional church should seek forgiveness from the LGBTQ community for failing to speak out when we are killed, beaten or imprisoned, for taking our jobs and our livelihoods, for denying us access to Jesus' Eucharistic table, for attempting to thwart our movements for equal protection under the law, and for promoting teachings that have estranged us from our faith, our communities, our families and, in some cases, even our own beloved partners.

LGBTQ persons do not need mercy from the church. We need justice. We need an institutional church that has the courage to admit that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, relationship status, or gender identity, have the same potential for goodness, wholeness and a sacramental life. Until that day comes, we will not achieve true dignity and full equality in our church.

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is]

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In This Issue

October 21-November 3, 2016

  • Reformation's anniversary brings commemorations, reconsiderations
  • Picks further diversify College of Cardinals
  • Editorial: One-issue obsession imperils credibility
  • Special Section [Print Only]: SAINTS