Father James Martin has taken his message of prayer and inclusivity just about everywhere — including the halls of the Vatican.
In 2022, he wrote to Pope Francis with a few questions.
"I just wanted to give him a time to briefly talk to LGBTQ Catholics," Martin told Scripps News.
Francis has extended apologies to the abused and a welcome to the historically rejected — and according to the Vatican News, he's met with transgender groups four times recently, so Martin's questions weren't so random.
"I asked him, what would you most like them to know about the church? And he said, read Acts of the Apostles, which was really interesting because there's a church that's kind of mixing it up," Martin said. "Then also, what would you say to an LGBTQ Catholic who felt rejected by the church? And he said, very interestingly, to remember that it's not the church that rejects you, the church loves you, but it might be individual people in the church."
It wasn't the first time Francis corresponded directly with Martin on LGBTQ+ relations or the first time he has spoken about their place within the Catholic Church.
In 2016, Francis agreed the church should apologize to not only gay people but other marginalized groups, like the poor. He also called for parents to accept their LGBTQ+ children.
Francis' gestures were one thing; changing church doctrine, which teaches the act of homosexuality is sinful, another.
"What would have to happen — really, in a sense — is for theologians working together, along with church officials, to come to some newer understanding of how they can accommodate for older church teaching on these issues to show that the church evolves rather than dramatically changing. Because the church is not going to say, 'Oh, we were wrong.' It's very rare," said Michele Dillon, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire.
Instead, Francis went another direction, one met with both criticism and praise: uplifting LGBTQ+ Catholics while simultaneously reiterating church doctrine.
"Is he sort of riding the line between saying that, 'This is doctrine and doctrine's not going to change,' but we also still need to love and affirm people as well?" Scripps News correspondent Amber Strong asked.
"In the U.S., we might say, 'Oh, you know, big deal. Of course, you should welcome your kids.' If you're in Eastern Europe or sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America or India, that's a big deal. And so we have to remember that he's speaking to the whole church," Martin explained.
Acceptance among Catholics varies across countries. For example, Pew Research data shows 65% of U.S. Catholics favor same-sex marriage, compared to 2% of Catholics in Nigeria.
Some theologians argue that Francis' support could have a trickle-down impact on individual Catholics and parishes.
In 2021, a group of Catholic leaders, including a cardinal and archbishop, signed a statement calling for widespread support of at-risk LGBTQ+ youth.
In 2023, the Vatican changed the rules, allowing transgender people to be baptized under certain circumstances as Frances continued to condemn the criminal punishment of homosexuality.
"To me, there's no such thing as an empty gesture because yes, many times people want to see more clear-cut evidence of change and of their acceptance within the church as LGBT, but sometimes it's in small steps," Dillon said.
In 2021, Martin, a Vatican appointee under Francis, launched Outreach, a website that provides resources to LGBTQ+ Catholics and leaders — an effort he says Pope Francis encouraged.
"He hasn't changed any church teaching, and I'm not advocating for any church teaching, but he's advocated a more pastoral response, listening to them, welcoming them, treating them with the respect," Martin said.
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