I went to Vatican City recently to talk to officials there about Pope Francis' views on homosexuality. In that famous interview in July, Pope Francis answered a question about how he would deal with gay priests with the immortal words "who am I to judge"? We sent him a letter saying we hoped he would encourage that attitude among high-level church officials around the world, some of whom have been making very judgmental comments. I wanted to follow up.
The news had just broken that the Pope had initiated a survey among his bishops about the way local clergy deal with issues like "rainbow" families, gay marriage, condom use and divorce. From the outside it seemed a new wind was blowing.
But my visit to the Vatican did not begin especially well. I met with Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the Vatican's lead official on doctrinal matters. Our conversation left me with the impression that Pope Francis bypassed the curia when he sent out the questionnaire.
When I referred to the Pope's statement as archbishop of Buenos Aires about his support for legal recognition of same-sex relationships while advocating against the same-sex marriage bill in Argentina, Müller's response was brisk. He said it is not up to the Pope to create a new doctrine on homosexuality and he changed the subject.
Our letter to the Pope on 16 October hoped to convince him to publicly condemn violence against LGBT people, to call for decriminalisation of consensual, same-sex sexual relationships and support the repeal of other unjust criminal penalties for LGBT people. We also urged him to moderate the tone of the church's public discourse on sexuality and call for greater legal protection for LGBT people.
We described how LGBT people are too often the victims of aggression and violence by state authorities and ordinary people in countries the world over. The official position of the Holy See is that it has taken a stance in opposing violence, unjust discrimination, and criminal penalties against LGBT people. Unfortunately, our research has shown that many Catholic leaders and communities have ignored or actively contravened the church's stated position toward homosexual people.
For example, in Uganda the Catholic Church joined a coalition of churches asking parliament to speed up the process of enacting an Anti-Homosexuality Bill. This bill, if passed into law, would not only increase the existing penalty for consensual same-sex sexual acts by adults to life in prison, or even death, but would also require all Ugandans to inform authorities if they are aware that someone is a homosexual or else face criminal sanctions.
I was a bit discouraged by my meeting in the Vatican but I remembered what a journalist told me. "I am not Roman-Catholic, but Pope Francis addresses issues I deeply care about," he said. "His rhetorical question: 'who am I to judge?' resonated with me." The journalist said that every day, he drove past a place in Rome where a young pregnant woman asked the drivers for money. "The other drivers scold her away, roll up their windows or look the other way."
Inspired by the pope's question, though, he rolled down his window and asked her how her day was going. "She was surprised that I talked to her and smiled. Since our first short conversation I talk to her every day and she keeps me posted about her pregnancy. Instead of judging her I am glad I got to know her as a person."
The next day I was invited to attend the general audience by Pope Francis on the square in front of Saint Peter's Basilica. Before speaking the Pope drove around the crowd in his open car, waving to the people. It must have been sheer luck, but his driver stopped right in front of me. The Pope reached out to a baby held by a man standing next to me. While the baby was being blessed I rushed to take our letter from my briefcase and hand it to the pope's assistant. "A letter for il Papa," I said. He took it from me and smiled. "He will read it," he answered and they moved on. I was overjoyed. Fed Ex couldn't have done a better job!
After the audience I walked back into the busy streets of Rome and I thought how wonderful it would be if the Pope would respond to the letter by publicly being supportive of LGBT people. My imagination went ahead of me.
How wonderful would it be if all around the world people would get inspired by the Pope's positive words. How they would roll down their windows and start a conversation with their gay or lesbian colleague or their transgender neighbour and treat them in a dignified and humane way.
Boris O. Dittrich is advocacy director for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights programme at Human Rights Watch. As a member of the Dutch parliament he introduced the world's first marriage equality bill, more than a decade.
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