Catholic Response to Pope Frances’ Statement on Gay Unions Shines a Light on How Protestants Treat Their Churches
LGBT+ people around the world struggling with integrating faith and sexuality can learn a lot from recent responses from Catholic leaders concerning the pope.
Pope Francis made news and history with his statements that were sympathetic to gay unions. It’s not the first time he’s made pro-gay statements, so I’m sure it’s less shocking than if other popes had made such a remark. An easy-to-overlook aspect of this announcement is the reaction of the church — with the unique position the pope holds.
The pope, when speaking on certain official church matters, is considered the voice of God. There are specific rules surrounding when that voice is active, and I believe there have been very few times the pope has invoked that authority. But the fact remains: The position of pope is a strict, established authority over the largest denomination in the world.
How does a believer in papal authority oppose the pope’s leadership without casting doubt on the legitimacy of the organization? That’s just what’s happening in several Catholic diocese. Several church leaders, even those inside the Vatican openly oppose the pope’s position on same sex unions.
Opposition to the Roman Catholic order of things is not new; Martin Luther started the reformation by nailing his 95 theses to the doors of the church in 1517, creating the beginnings of the Protestant movement. Since then, the Protestant movement has led to a more individualistic approach to faith. Modern protestant churches are known for encouraging personal study of Scripture, and a personal, rather than corporate experience with God.
It turns out Catholics share a bit of agency when it comes to criticizing the pope, even though he’s supposed to be a voice from God. The key difference between Catholics and Protestants is the Catholic leaders aren’t talking about leaving Catholicism. After all this is settled, everyone involved is still a Roman Catholic.
An interesting characteristic of Protestantism is the establishment of leaders they don’t have to listen to and denominations they can quit. When the Episcopal church in America decided to ordain an openly gay bishop, the church split; churches who didn’t agree simply left the denomination and called themselves something else. When Presbyterian Churches of America (PCA) decided to accept and affirm gays, they also split–with many churches spending millions buying their properties to do so. In these cases, rather than voting with their voices, churches voted with their feet by leaving the denominations.
Such is Protestantism. When you don’t like a doctrine, you’re free to go find another place to grow; it’s part of being a Protestant. If you’re a Protestant and you’re LGBT+, you might want to take note of how this important distinction can help you.
24,000 Protestants who supposedly don’t believe in a central authoritarian view of “the faith,”, signed the Nashville Statement, which not only condemns gays, it condemns people who believe it’s okay to be gay as non-Christian. So ended the discourse, at least for these folks, in the arena of gayness and okayness.
While acknowledging the power of God, the only advice the Nashville statement has for LGBT+ people could be summed up, “Just don’t be gay.”
That advice hasn’t worked for many of us; it’s bad news for LGBT+ believers.
The good news? 24,000 signing the Nashville Statement seems like a lot of people until you notice there are 205 million Christians in the United States alone!
Churches have aligned themselves with and against the views expressed in the Nashville statement. There are churches we would call “unaccepting,” some that are “welcoming,” and some that are “fully affirming” of LGBT+ people.
The defining factors of unaccepting and fully affirming churches are easy to guess. Stay in the closet or leave would be your two strategies at an unaccepting church if you were LGBT+.
“Be as gay as you want, and we’ll still make you a pastor,” would describe fully affirming. These churches won’t keep you from growing or holding positions of leadership, no matter your orientation, gender identity, etc.
The sticking point comes with welcoming churches. A welcoming church is typically called such because as a gay person, you’re welcome to be there. You’re welcome to give when the offering plate comes by. You may even be allowed to serve in some capacity — but there’s a line. At some point, you’re cut off from volunteering. For example, gays in welcoming churches may be allowed to make and serve coffee, but not teach a children’s ministry.
The question each Protestant Christian gets to answer is where is the best place to grow? I’m hard pressed to see a benefit for an LGBT+ person staying in an unaccepting or welcoming church unless their goal is to reform that church. Even then, I’d want some hope of accomplishing that goal or at least making progress towards it.
Unlike the critics of Pope Frances, LGBT+ protestants can remain faithful in the face of opposition and find a different place to learn and love. My advice to those blessed with integrating faith and sexuality or gender identity is to treat church organizations the way those churches treat their denominations. When a church’s rules interfere with the ability to meet God, it’s okay to find a better place to grow.
If you’re a person of faith, and the advice “don’t be gay” doesn’t work for you — in a philosophical, theological, or practical sense, you’re invited to check out Andy’s website, www.triedtobestraight.com.
Tried to be Straight: Biblical Options for Gay Christians will be released early next year.
Andy can be reached at email@example.com