Comment: Gay rights and the Church - no prizes for setting the bar low

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square from a window of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. (AAP)

Pope Francis has been widely touted as a progressive pontiff due to some of his comments about gays. But save the accolades for someone affecting real change, writes Rebecca Shaw.

I attended a Catholic school for the first six years of my education, which produced many happy memories.

There was attending church for two hours each Friday morning (which doesn’t sound fun and absolutely was not, but at least I wasn’t in maths TGIF). Then there were the awkward moments of trying to think of something to admit at confession when I was the world’s biggest goodie-two-shoes. Telling the priest I’d only read five books that week didn’t seem to cut it. One summer I fainted in mass and came around to find myself being dragged down the aisle by the priest and head nun, as if I were being brought to the alter and sacrificed to the God. Even though I’m now a non-believer, on the odd occasion I am in a quiet church I still have a sense of nostalgia, and also fearlessness, because I know the nuns would be too old to drag me away now.

These were the more difficult times I had at Catholic school, but I fear I would have had many more if I hadn’t left before I realised I was a lesbian. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but despite the fabulous outfits, the Catholic Church (and ergo Catholic schools) are not well-known for their acceptance of queer people. But if you receive all your news from various magazines’ People of the Year selections, you might think otherwise. Time Magazine selected the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, as its ‘Person of the Year’. Then, more strangely, The Advocate, self-described “world’s leading LGBT news source”, chose Pope Francis as its ‘Person of the Year’.

The justification for the pick was based a few comments Pope Francis made in recent months. First, he said that the Church had become too ‘obsessed’ with issues such as abortion and homosexuality (as obsessed as I am with Beyoncé, I guess).  Later, when asked how he would respond if he learned a priest in his cleric was homosexual but not sexually active, he stated “who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?”

To those of us with a trained ex-Catholic ear, his statements seemingly suggested that if you don’t act on your homosexuality, the Church might be able to stomach your existence. Or maybe the statements implied nothing at all; they are so broad. What The Advocate selecting Pope Francis as ‘Person of the Year’ does imply is that some queer people can be placated by the merest shift in language by the Church. Yes, the Pope influences millions of Catholics. And yes, he should be praised for making a change, if and when he actually makes that change.

This is not that time. He did not change the doctrine, he has not changed his stance on supporting the Church’s teachings, and he is excommunicating a pro-gay Australian priest for supporting women in becoming ordained. And now, since The Advocate award, it has been reported that he is ‘shocked’ by the thought of civil unions and gay adoption - news that isn’t shocking to me at all.

The Advocate and a lot of progressives have lauded Pope Francis for not following his predecessors by directly attacking queer people in speeches, and for two vague statements that sound suspiciously like a PR exercise to win over some more left-wing types (and it totally worked! Good plan Ocean's eHeaven).

But this is setting the bar far too low. We deserve better. The leader of an organisation that has been responsible for generations of systemic homophobia and transphobia shoudn't be showered with accolades simply for making a semi-humane comment about queer people.

Save those for people like Edie Windsor – the widow whose case helped destroy the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and ushered in marriage equality for the USA – or the countless others who work tirelessly for equal rights.

The change in focus and tone from Pope Francis is welcome, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for real change.

Rebecca Shaw is a Brisbane-based writer and host of the fortnightly comedy podcast Bring a Plate.

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