Next Pope: Will He Guide the Church Toward a More Pro-LGBT Stance?

In a move that took the world aback, Pope Benedict XVI has announced his resignation, making him the first pope to resign from office since Pope Gregory XII in 1415. It’s no secret that Benedict, a hard-line theological conservative, has been very vocal in his anti-LGBT agenda, even by Catholic standards.

In keeping with the holiday spirit, he used his 2008 Christmas address to declare that “defending heterosexuality is as critical to mankind as protecting the rain forests.” A year ago he stated that “the blurring of distinctions between the genders could lead to the ‘self-destruction’ of the human race.” More recently, he once again used his 2012 Christmas address to the Vatican bureaucracy to take another homophobic swing at LGBT individuals, claiming that they forgo their “God-given gender identities” to suit their own sexual choices, thus destroying “the very essence of the human creature.”

The pope’s anti-LGBT crusade created conflicts with the Anglican Church. He appealed to the conservatives in that institution, and encouraged them to convert to Catholicism, going so far as to expedite the process for them. His rationale was that those who disapproved of the Anglican Church’s tolerance for gay and women clergy, as well as same-sex marriage, would convert to Catholicism en masse.

Whether or not we will see a more progressive stance on LGBT issues from the Vatican depends largely on who becomes the next pope. With one possible exception, we will most likely not see a pope who openly embraces LGBT Catholics. This exception is Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Austria, who has proven to be more open-minded on social issues. He even went as far as to reinstate an openly gay man living in a domestic partnership to a parish council in his diocese, overruling the priest who had revoked him despite his overwhelming election to the council. This courageous act could, however, work against his favor in the conclave, as it was noted with disapproval by other high-ranking Catholic officials.

The other top contenders are Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan. Hypocritically, Cardinal Ouellet, who has very good odds of becoming the next pope, has apologized for the Quebec clergy’s errors before 1960, including "anti-Semitism, racism, indifference to First Nations and discrimination against women and homosexuals.” However, the cardinal also threatened not to baptize the children of same-sex couples upon the passage of Canada’s marriage equality law. Ignoring the spiritual violence this perpetuates against infants in their parents, he ironically stated that equating homosexuality with marriage in schools was harmful to the well being of children, calling it a form of violence against them.

Chances that the other top contender, Cardinal Angelo Scola, will be more LGBT friendly aren’t looking very good either. Pope Benedict appointed Scola to the diocese in Milan precisely because the church saw his two predecessors as too liberal and deviant from Vatican doctrine.

The good news is that although the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church has always veered more conservative, Catholics themselves are highly polarized over social issues. 95% of American Catholic women have reported using birth control and 52% support same sex-marriage, which is in line with general American support for gay marriage.

This polarization came to a head last summer when the Vatican lambasted the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group that represents 80% of American nuns and laywomen in the U.S., for their alleged doctrinal disloyalty. Even though the orders that the group represents have directly heeded Jesus’ call to help the poor through their altruistic services, the church was not happy with their progressive stances on gay rights and women’s reproductive rights. This prompted the Vatican to appoint three bishops charged with supervising an overhaul of the organization, intending to bring them in line with orthodox Catholic doctrine. In turn, American Catholics from across the country rallied to the side of these nuns, who also received letters of support from progressive Catholics abroad.

As such, the only hope for some chance of meaningful reform from the Vatican on LGBT issues is if Cardinal Schoeborn becomes pope. The good news, however, is that more progressive Catholic groups, such as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, may continue to make their voices heard and stand up to the church’s clergy on LGBT issues. The predominantly conservative cardinals and the next pope may have to seriously consider reevaluating their discriminatory stances, particularly in light of the church’s steadily increasing loss of practitioners and general inability to recruit new converts. 

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Bryant Harris

Bryant Harris is a reporter with Inter Press Service News. He has worked in Muscat, Oman and was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. He graduated from UW-Madison in 2011 with a BA in Middle East Studies.

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