Out of the Shadows, Into the Light :: Italian Gays Bask in the ’Francis Effect’
In a sad illustration of the human proclivity for "follow the leader," societies on Uganda and Russia have responded to homophobia and anti-gay hate from the top with sharp increases in violence directed at gays or those perceived to be gay. But that same principle works in reverse, as gays in Italy are now learning.
A March 27 article in the Washington Post took note of how the new leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has dialed back Church rhetoric that demonized sexual minorities. Under pontiffs John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Church issued infamously anti-gay proclamations, including statements that homosexuality is "an intrinsic moral evil," gays and lesbians are "disordered," and gay parents are guilty of child abuse for doing nothing more than raising their children in a household headed by two adults of the same gender. By contrast, Pope Francis, whose style has been characterized as more "pastoral" than those of his immediate predecessors, has effectively created a new, more tolerant atmosphere for gays both inside and outside of the Catholic faith tradition. In the summer of 2013 he said, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" That was a far cry from high-handed and sweeping generalities about the "intrinsic moral evils" of GLBT people and their family lives.
The Post article said that Italian sexual minorities spoke of this new sense of relief as "the Francis Effect."
Earlier this month, Cardinal Timothy Dolan -- who has in the past given voice to anti-gay sentiments -- said on Meet the Press that "rather than condemn them," Pope Francis had suggested that the Church should study the issue of civil partnerships for same-sex families. The media seized on those words as evidence that the Church’s stance on gay and lesbian family parity might be evolving.
Pope Francis excited and inspired similar hope earlier this year, when he spoke out against what he termed "administering a vaccine against faith" by attacking the same-sex parents of children.
Any true dogmatic change is likely to be slow in coming: The Post article noted that, "Francis’ shift so far has been one of style over substance; nothing in the Church’s teachings on homosexuality has changed, and conservative clerics remain deeply skeptical of any radical move toward broad acceptance." Even so, the article went on to report that Francis’ more humble approach to social questions such as sexuality and the place of GLBT families in society had helped inspire a mood of detente between gays and lesbians from Catholic backgrounds and their families.
One anecdote of thawing relations between family members divided by the Church’s historically monolithic opposition to gay and lesbian family life took the form of an Italian lesbian’s story as recounted in the Post article. A woman referred to only as Anna Maria was quoted as saying that after Pope Francis made his comment last summer, her mother contacted her despite the rift that had developed between them following Anna Maria’s disclosure that she is a lesbian.
Anna Maria shared the hopeful story that her mother phoned her and said, "If the pope is not judging you, then who am I to judge you either?"
The article also noted that Kairos, an Italian gay Catholic group once consigned to the shadows and required to fly under the radar, was now edging out into greater visibility amidst a sense that the new Pope, unlike either Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI -- who, in his boyhood was a Hitler youth and, as a cleric in his pre-pontiff years, served as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, otherwise known as The Inquisition -- was not intent on targeting GLBT Catholics for direct condemnation.
"It is like feeling the light on your face," the group’s coordinator, Innocenzo Pontillo, told the Post. "These are things which I feel would have been impossible before Pope Francis."
In ancient Greek, the word "Kairos" can refer to the right moment for any given action. For the free world, the Italian group’s name may prove appropriate: In repressive societies such as Uganda and Russia, lawless conduct under cover of homophobia has been encouraged by antigay legislation; recently, a mob of Russians attacked St. Patrick’s Day celebrants, mistaking their kilts for feminine garb and summing they were gay. Moreover, after months of aggressive attack, Russian gay nightspot Central Station has shuttered its doors.
But in free and progressive societies there is hope, under the leadership of figures such as Pope Francis. Specific to the Catholic faith, which is one billion members strong globally, a newly emergent sense of acceptance under Francis may signal that a major mainstream religion could, long at last, lead the way in definitively transcending faith-based homophobic hatred and violence.