Gay-friendly Pope deserves to be praised
The pontiff is not going to suddenly change the rules but he is changing the language, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
Talking to journalists on his way back from Brazil, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, aka Pope Francis, was happy. His visit had been a triumph: a million attended his final mass on Rio's Copacabana beach. He may not be able to stop evangelical Pentecostalism making further inroads into Latin America, but he made a start by being seen to care more about slums and suffering than pomp and pageantry.
The hacks, however, were sniffing scandal. In June, Francis had appointed Monsignor Battista Ricca to sort out the mess that is the Vatican bank, but shortly before the pope left for Latin America, Ricca was publicly accused of having been on the gay scene when he was a Vatican diplomat in Uruguay, claims which have been strongly denied. And this against the background of the rumours earlier in the year about a sinister gay lobby in the Vatican.
Asked about this, Francis was clear. "We must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby." Lobbies were bad, "but if a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge that person?"
He's not going to be changing the rules, but he's certainly changing the language and we should honour him for it.
Now before the brickbats start raining down on me from pope-haters, here's my position. Popes are popes, and therefore can't be expected to think like Dublin 4 opinion formers. "He's a pope, for God's sake!" I heard myself howling down the phone at a rationalist German friend as she condemned his attitude to sex outside marriage. "What do you expect him to believe?"
I abandoned the Roman Catholic Church when I was 16 because I couldn't share its core beliefs. Later I became a religion-friendly atheist who finds evangelical secularism a pain, and thinks the likes of Richard Dawkins show disrespect in their dismissal of religion as superstition. Religion is responsible for plenty that's bad. It's also responsible for much that's good and beautiful.
I also think that in the West too many of us fail to honour our rich Judeo-Christian heritage and that the messages attributed to Jesus Christ (whoever he was) are sound. Although I have a place in my heart for the Hindu Ganesha, who is keen on books, women and dance, as gods go, the Christian god seems to me to be tops. Which is why I've taken to calling myself a Christian atheist.
I've become socially liberal to an extent that would have surprised my 20-year-old self and therefore favour women priests and gay marriage, but I don't expect the Catholic Church to agree with me. There's plenty about the institution I don't like, but at its best, it performs a vital function in thinking deeply about issues like abortion and euthanasia, and I'm grateful for that in a world of knee-jerk political correctness and slippery-slope pragmatism.
Pope Benedict was a theologian of distinction who abdicated when he realised he wasn't capable of reforming a corrupt Vatican. David Berger (one-time Professor at the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome and now the editor-in-chief of Germany's most successful gay lifestyle magazine) describes Francis's theology as "a kind of folk Catholicism of Latin American origin". He's a doer rather than a thinker who worries more about poverty than about church rules. Paul Vallely, Francis's biographer, sees him as a radical reformer with the courage and political guile to get his way. In other words, he's just what is needed with the church in the state it's in.
In Vallely's view, the key to Francis is that he puts people before dogma. And on gay matters, he has form. His predecessor as archbishop of Buenos Aires believed gays should be "locked up in a ghetto". Bergoglio's reaction to the move to legalise gay marriage in Argentina was to oppose it, while insisting that homosexuals should be given the right to civil unions. He also caused outrage among conservatives by washing and kissing the feet of homosexuals with Aids.
Berger (who admittedly doesn't go in for understatement) claims that 20-40 per cent of priests are homosexual, repressed or otherwise.
The pope wants a church that serves the poor rather than their clergy. He needs to smash special interest groups, and the secretive gay lobby in the Vatican, which exists to promote its members, is an urgent target. When the row starts, his enemies will accuse him of being a gay-hater. He isn't. He's a celibate, heterosexual, gay-friendly pope and that's as good as it gets.