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Faith Leaders Respond to Remarks by Pope Francis, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Evangelist Pat Robertson

The National Religious Leadership Roundtable, convened by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, responded to recent remarks by internationally renowned faith leaders about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Last Friday, Bishop Desmond Tutu addressed a United Nations-sponsored gathering and decried a “homophobic heaven” painted by and perpetrated by religious bigots even as he spoke of his work around LGBT justice as equal in importance to his anti-Apartheid work.

On the other hand, Pope Francis, during an impromptu press conference following his first international trip since becoming pope, signaled a more gentle approach to LGBT persons when asked. His oft-quoted comment about gay priests “If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers”

And televangelist Pat Robertson talked about transgender people, by saying: “I don’t think there’s any sin associated with that. I don’t condemn somebody for doing that.”

Responses from National Religious Leadership Roundtable Members

Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel, Faith Work Director, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force:

“While Bishop Tutu has long been a clarion voice of gospel-rooted justice of all kinds, including that for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, both the Vatican and Pat Robertson have consistently embodied the worst of ‘Christian’ bigotry, using the Bible and the Christian tradition as weapons against the dignity, worth and even humanity of LGBT persons.

“So to have all three of these internationally recognized Christian leaders speak in ways of extravagant welcome in Tutu’s case and in less judgmental ways in Pope Francis and Pat Robertson’s cases within the same week, is a moment to recognize that something has shifted. The once rock-solid false dichotomy that “all the people of faith are anti-LGBT and all the LGBT people are anti-religious” has been broken. The religiously-rooted, prophetic vision of love, hospitality and transformative justice for ALL people is beginning to bubble up all over.

“But let us be clear, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to be done. Around LGBT issues, much of the hatred that has existed within US-based radical right churches is being exported — to Uganda and Brazil and parts of Southeast Asia. And we only need to look as far as Pope Francis’ comments about the role of women in the Catholic church or the religious support for a host of stand-your-ground, anti-choice and voting-rights suppression bills that have passed in Texas, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania to know that those of us who work for justice because of the dictates of our faith have a lot of work yet to be done.

“But for those of us who work toward building movements at the intersections of justice and liberation, our hope is built on nothing less than the reality that, no matter how we measure the time, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, Executive Director, DignityUSA:

“Pope Francis’ comments on gay people in the Church represent a very welcome change in tone from what we’ve heard from the last two Popes. For gay people to hear a Pope speak of us as people of faith and goodwill who should not be marginalized in society, rather than as threats to civilization, is a great shift.

“The overwhelming response to these statements has shown just how hungry lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Catholics are for any kind of pastoral care from Church officials, and how much damage has been done to our community over the past two and a half decades.

“I would hope that Francis’ tone will be echoed by bishops and Cardinals around the globe. A shift like this could affect everything from the kinds of homilies preached at Sunday Mass, to how much leadership bishops take on anti-LGBT equality measures, to whether bishops speak out when laws making homosexuality a capital crime are being considered. It could definitely impact how welcome LGBT people and our families feel in our Church.

“Pope Francis has demonstrated a remarkable willingness to be present with those most marginalized in society. That is where the Church should be, and it’s right that he reminds us of this. Can he see LGBT people as among the marginalized, and walk alongside us? Will he enter into a dialogue, where he listens to our stories and learns about our lives, our relationships, our struggles to remain part of our Church? Over time, could this lead to substantive changes in church teaching or to where and how Catholic leaders become involved in LGBT rights issues?

“There has been significant change in what Catholics believe about LGBT people, and the degree to which they work for our equality, here in the US and in many other countries. Catholics are often in the leadership of efforts to increase the rights of LGBT people, but our Church leaders lag far behind. Perhaps this will be an opening that encourages more Church officials to enter into the kind of transformative dialogue that has propelled the Church forward.”

Most Rev. Mark Shirilau, Ph.D., Archbishop and Primate, The Ecumenical Catholic Church:

“We are pleased that Pope Francis has recognized that gay people can be full and complete servants of our Lord. We pray that the pope will continue to progress and will lead the Roman Church fully forward to equality within marriage and ordination and that, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he will realize that homophobia is contrary to the all-inclusive, universal love of Jesus Christ. The Ecumenical Catholic Church has nearly thirty years of history demonstrating that openly gay people, women, and married people are fully capable of serving God in the priesthood and that the marriages of two men or two women can be just as reflective of Christ’s love for the Church as can be the marriages of a man and a woman. God’s sacramental grace simply is not bound by sex, gender, or orientation.

Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry:

“Pope Francis’ statement on accepting and respecting gay priests is a clear sign that this pope will be taking a more conciliatory approach to LGBT issues than his immediate predecessors have done.

“Unlike John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who approached LGBT topics through the lens of sexuality and sin, Pope Francis is signaling a new direction which is based on the Catholic principles of human dignity, respect, and social integration. Benedict had issued an instruction to bishops not to accept gay candidates for the seminary, a policy that was being considered under John Paul’s papacy. Both previous papacies were noted for their virulent opposition against LGBT issues.

“Some will say that Francis’ statement is not enough, that he still refers to sins of homosexuals, but I think the important thing is the question of emphasis. Even if he doesn’t drop the sin language, this is still a major step forward, and one that can pave the way for further advancements down the road. Change in the church is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Though this statement is not the change which many of us hope for, that is, the full equality of LGBT people in our church, it is a necessary first step toward that change.”

Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., Co-Director, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER):

“WATER welcomes Pope Francis’ efforts to join the worldwide conversation about the goodness and holiness of same-sex love. We hope that he will listen carefully to the experiences of LGBTIQ people. It is incumbent on him to incorporate those insights into official Catholic teaching since they are already part of the sensus fidelium. At the same time, we are deeply distressed by his statement that the ban on the ordination of women remains as it is without discussion. For a pope who in Brazil called for “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue,” this is a blatant and egregious contradiction. May he rectify it shortly and get on with the work of doing justice for and with all.”

Howard Solomon, President, World Congress of GLBT Jews:

“As a Jew, I would never presume to tell Christian clergy what to do or say. That said, as a mainstream progressive Jew, and leading The World Congress of GLBT Jews, I am always pleased when clergy of any denomination make and/or advocate progress on issues of importance to the LGBT community.

“Retired Archbishop Bishop Desmond Tutu has for some time been a supportive voice within the Anglican communion. His continued vocal support of LGBT equality is a beacon of light for religious people everywhere. I echo his thoughts that a homophobic heaven would be a terrible place for all concerned.

“The recent remarks by Pope Francis are striking. For the first time, a Pope has made clear his clear inclusion of ‘gay’ people in his Church. I use the quotes because his use of a term we use for ourselves rather than the more clinical ‘homosexual’ is itself a sign of progress. This is especially powerful and intended , as he was speaking in Italian but emphasized his use of the word “gay” by saying it in English.

“While we focus on inclusion of the entire LGBT community, the Pope’s use of the word ‘gay’ and his support of gay Catholics should resonate as a lightning bolt throughout Catholicism.  “This is truly a great time to be alive for LGBT people of faith.”

Dave Ferguson, Director of Church Relations, Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International:

“The arc of Justice seemed to bend to touch a rainbow in statements from Archbishop Desmond Tutu this week, as he reflected not only on this life, but a future life in which he anticipated greeting LGBT members of the church. His acknowledgement that he would not worship a god who was homophobic speaks to many in the LGBT community and their families who have left congregations because of clergy statements that would indicate such an attitude by God.

“His statements coming at the beginning of the United Nations launch of a gay-rights program indicates the broad changes taking place within the church. This was further emphasized by a statement made by Pope Francis, whose arc didn’t bend nearly as far, but who moved the arc of Justice many degrees from statements made by his predecessors.

“His statement that ‘If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?’ was viewed as revolutionary by some. Such statements by religious leaders will hopefully change both the tone and the substance of dialogue with members of the LGBT community within other denominations.

Joshua Lesser, Chair, Social Justice Commission for the Jewish Reconstructionist Movement:

“Pope Francis’ words strike a compassionate approach that is both a big step and a small one at the same time. His recognition of the humanity of gay people and their service to God is a marked improvement from his predecessor and a message of acceptance that I believe will temper violence and exclusion of the gay community. Perhaps, it will assist parents’ acceptance of their own children. This is significant; however, it should be noted that he did not challenge traditional church doctrine.

“While tone can be huge in some ways, it does not fundamentally allow gay people to live out their love in full expression. On the other hand, Bishop Tutu is unabashed ally. He is uncompromising in his support for the gay community and a worldview that embraces the gay community in love, not just acceptance or tolerance. For me, Bishop Tutu is a prime example of an ally and someone the gay community should extol and see as a role model for how to live as an ally.  We could all benefit from that lesson.”

Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson, Moderator, Metropolitan Community Churches:

“Who Am I to Judge?

“Pope Francis asked a stunning question, ‘Who am I to judge?’ This was in response to inquiries about whether or not there are gay priests in the Vatican — the now renowned ‘Gay Lobby.’

“In a 90-minute interview returning from his travels in Brazil, an affable, relaxed, Pope Francis covered a range of topics but the ‘Who am I to judge?’ response made the world do a double take.


“’Who am I to judge?’

“Well…the Pope!  You are the Pope who inherited two millennia of well…pontificating about what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s moral and what’s immoral.

“I am sure the Vatican leaders are wringing their collective hands over a Pope that may be viewed as a security and PR nightmare. He may seem out of their control, dispensing mercy and off-the-cuff pastoral kindness that blurs the lines on official church policy and pronouncements. We could almost feel the winds of Vatican II blowing.

“My hope is that this is not just the kind of rock star popularity that masked the sometimes kind conservatism of John Paul II. He gave ‘warm fuzzies’ to big crowds, but became increasingly dogmatic as a corrupt system of financial and sexual exploitation lurked beneath the surface.

“Pope Francis’ step toward humility was stunning but few are naïve enough to think that everything has changed. Gay priests must still be celibate and Pope Francis declared, ‘the door is closed’ on the ordination of women. But what the Pope did in that interview was to begin to live up to the Catholic Church’s own teachings about humankind. Honestly, if all Christian denominations and traditions lived up to their own teachings about humanity, there would be a great revolution of respect.  But that respect must include women as full human beings, worthy of greatness — worthy of ordination — and it must include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people.

“I sincerely hope this Pope really does want to shake up things. Celibacy should be optional. Catholic women need the church to move into the 20th, much less 21st century, to recognize their full eligibility for the priesthood. Sexual assaults on children must be eliminated. Decisions about contraception, reproductive health and choice should be in the hands of women, not by unaffected men who like to dictate policy. The use of condoms to save lives through prevention of HIV/AIDS must be commonplace.  A revolution of respect can happen!

“Virtually every faith tradition has a core belief that human beings have inherent worth as creations of God. The inherent worth of each human being means that Christians should be aghast at the brutal murders of gay men in Russia, Camaroon, Yemen and even in the United States.

“In South Africa, where so-called ‘corrective rape’ is used mostly against lesbians but also transgender people and gay men, the brutality is shocking and too often is endorsed by family members. Duduzile Zozo was raped with a toilette brush and left to die in early July. Bishop Tutu presided at her memorial service and famously said he ‘Would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven.’

“Most anti-LGBTQ rapes, beatings, tortures and murders happen with little comment because it is too dangerous to report assaults or murder of a gay friend or family member for fear of police reprisal. Even with high publicity, the Camaroon police do not seem to be pursuing the person(s) who murdered gay rights advocate, Eric Lembembe. Instead, Camaroon police arrested three organizers who have been critiquing the lack of action by Camaroon officials!

“Where are the faith voices? Pope Francis, we urge you not to be silent! Use your moral weight to stop vicious attacks and cruel persecution. Promote a campaign for tolerance.  We do not have to punish people for being different!

“Why are Christians silent when Eric Lemembe is tortured with a hot iron in his own home? Why are Christians silent when lesbians are raped — even raped to death? Why are Christians silent as Russia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and so many other countries pass laws that make talking about the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people punishable by prison or fine?

“Zimbabwe President Mugabe recently condemned LGBTQ people and promised to cut off our heads.  Pronouncements like these are de facto endorsements of street violence, mob attacks, family rejection and official persecution against anyone who is perceived to be LGBTQ — as well as against their families. Mugabe is a Catholic, who should hear from his new Pope that violent homophobia is unacceptable for Catholic leaders.

“Although the Pope did not suddenly change the church’s view that LGBTQ people should remain celibate — whether as priests or as lay people — he did tell Christians around the world that it’s time to live up to the highest values of the faith rather than to descend to base disrespect for human beings.

“Pope Francis modeled a more tolerant approach to LGBTQ people. He is the first Pope to use the word, ‘gay.’ Tolerance is a humble platform from which people across the world can be speaking out for mutual respect. It is not a perfect platform, but it appears that it might suit a Pope who doesn’t think of himself as infallible — but a human being who respects God’s good diversity — how refreshing!

“As the head of Metropolitan Community Churches, which has ministries in 40 countries, I know it is time that Christians step up and strive to fulfill the basic teachings of Jesus — feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit prisoners — and, like the Pope, judge not.

Equally Blessed:

“Pope Francis today uttered some of the most encouraging words a pontiff has ever spoken about gay and lesbian people.  In doing so, he has set a great example for Catholics everywhere.

“The pope has rejected the harsh language of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, for a compassionate approach and a pastoral tone. Lesbians and gays are no longer a ‘threat to civilization,’ rather they are people of faith and good will.

“Catholic leaders who continue to belittle gays and lesbians can no longer claim that their inflammatory remarks represent the sentiments of the pope. Bishops who oppose the expansion of basic civil rights — such as an end to discrimination in the work place — can no longer claim that the pope approves of their discriminatory agenda.

“Pope Francis did not articulate a change in the church’s teaching today, but he spoke compassionately, and in doing so, he has encouraged an already lively conversation that may one day make it possible for the church to fully embrace gay and lesbian Catholics.