Following Pope Francis’s meeting last week with 34 Chilean bishops — many of whom have been accused or suspected of covering up instances of clerical sexual abuse in their country and all of whom have offered to resign — a survivor who met with Francis recently has shared details of his encounter with the pontiff.
“He told me, ‘Juan Carlos, the fact that you’re gay doesn’t matter. God made you like that, and he loves you like that, and I don’t care,'” Juan Carlos Cruz told Spanish newspaper El Pais, recalling his nearly three-hour conversation with the pontiff. He said the Pope made the comments when they met for a private discussion last month to discuss the sexual abuse and cover-up scandal involving clergy members in Cruz’s native Chile.
Cruz, who was sexually assaulted as a child by the Rev. Fernando Karadima, Chile’s disgraced pedophile priest who was found guilty of abusing young boys in Santiago in the 1970s and 1980s in a 2011 Vatican investigation, told the paper that his sexual orientation came up during the conversation. Specifically, Cruz has been targeted for being gay, and experienced painful personal attacks after speaking out about his abuse.
“They had told [Francis] that I was practically a pervert. I explained that I’m not the reincarnation of San Luis Gonzaga, but I am not a bad person, I try to not harm anyone,” Cruz told El Pais.
A representative at the Vatican declined to confirm or deny the remarks, telling The Los Angeles Times, “We don’t normally comment on the pope’s private conversations.”
Official church teaching calls for acceptance and respect of lesbian, bisexual and gay people, but considers homosexual activity “intrinsically disordered.” Francis, though, has attempted to make the church more welcoming to the community, most notably with his 2013 remark, “If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Later that year, he suggested in an interview that God does not “reject and condemn” gay people.
While the Pope’s recent comments have been praised by some in the LGBTQ community as another indication of his vision of inclusion in the Catholic Church, some have sought to downplay the significance of the remarks as merely being in line with his pastoral practice and believe he has a lot of catching up to do on transgender issues.
“While it’s a good comment, it really doesn’t change the church’s teachings,” Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an LGBTQ-affirming Catholic advocacy organization, told Salon. “What it does show is that he is much more pastorally inclined about LGBT issues than his predecessors have been, meaning that he’s willing to dialogue and listen and learn from LGBT people.”
He also said he doesn’t think the Pope “has a good handle of the science of transgender issues and gender identity.”
“He has this blind spot about what transgender reality really is,” DeBernardo added. “He seems to have a problem with with this belief, that he has, that people are educating children to believe that they have a choice about their gender, and that’s that’s just not true. That’s not that’s not how transgender identity works. Transgender people report that they discovered their their true gender identity, not that they have chosen their true gender identity.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, an organization that focuses on LGBTQ rights within the Catholic Church, echoed DeBernardo.
She told Salon that while the Pope’s reported comments “could have important implications” for the LGBTQ community, but cautioned against interpreting the outreach as a change in church teaching. “The question is going to be about whether these comments are allowed to stand, or if there’s going to be a lot of pushback from the very dogmatically-oriented members of the Curia or the right-wing Catholic organizations that tend to have a lot of influence with the Vatican,” she said.
Duddy-Burke pointed out that “the current church teachings and practices are very dangerous to all kinds of queer people and to our families,” explaining that they’re being used to help wage campaigns “to restrict access to healthcare for transgender people and gay people.”
“Most critically impacted by the health care issues is the transgender community, with many Catholic hospitals refusing to provide any kind of gender confirmation services,” she said. “And now [Catholic hospitals] are not even being required to provide referrals to places that will serve trans folk, and that’s incredibly dangerous for the mental and physical health of transgender people in our own country.”
Pope Francis has previously come under scrutiny from the LGBTQ community, most recently after he condemned technologies that are making it easier for people to change their genders, saying this “utopia of the neutral” threatens the creation of new life, according to the Associated Press. Such advances in “biomedical technology,” the pontiff said, “risk dismantling the source of energy that fuels the alliance between men and women and renders them fertile.”
And in 2015, Francis compared transgender people to nuclear weapons, saying both do not “recognize the order of creation.”
“Let’s think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings,” he said in an in an interview with Italian journalists Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi. “Let’s think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation.”
“With this attitude, man commits a new sin, that against God the Creator,” he added. “The true custody of creation does not have anything to do with the ideologies that consider man like an accident, like a problem to eliminate.”
And the Catholic Church only recently revised the teaching that insisted that sexual orientation was not something people choose, but that it was designed by God.
The first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the summary of Catholic teaching published by St. John Paul II in 1992, said gay individuals “do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial.”
The updated edition was amended to remove the reference to homosexuality not being a choice. The revised version says, “This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.”
While the Catholic Church has become more progressive with Pope Francis leading its direction, it’s clear that it has a long way to go to holding its arms wide open to the to the LGBTQ community.