It was supposed to be a simple news conference on a plane on the way back from a trip to Ireland. But the pope’s off the cuff comments on gays has sent out a worldwide whirlwind of backlash.
Less than 72 hours after Pope Francis told reporters on a plane to Rome that parents should seek “psychiatric help for their gay children,” the Vatican is trying now to row back discussions that the comments were inappropriate and offensive.
It was during a press conference on an airplane while returning from Ireland last weekend that Pope Francis was pointedly asked “what he would say to parents whose children were gay.”
In a story that was reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and contributed to by both the Washington Post and the New York Times, the pontiff told journalists: “When it shows itself from childhood, there are so many things you can do through psychiatry, to see how things are. It is something else if it shows itself after 20 years.”
But when the Holy See’s official news website published details of the interaction, the line was not included.
Vatican News reported the pontiff had also said he would encourage parents “to pray, to not condemn, to dialogue, to make room” for their offspring, and that ignoring the child would be an error.
It would be another thing if homosexuality manifested itself “after 20 years,” he added, leaving open the possibility the pope would be more amenable to people coming out at an older age.
Questioned further by more journalists on what he would do if he were the father of a homosexual child, the pontiff replied: “The first thing I would say is, pray. Don’t judge, but talk, understand, give the son or daughter space.”
Remaining silent on the issue would be bad parenting, he said.
“Ignoring a son or daughter with homosexual tendencies shows a lack of fatherhood or motherhood,” he said, adding that parents should “not chase” their children away.
Gay and lesbian advocacy groups in Italy criticized the pope’s comments, the New York Times reported.
“Talking about psychiatry leads Catholic parents to believe that psychiatry can cure homosexuality,” said Fabrizio Marrazzo from the support group Gay Hotline, the Ansa news agency reported.
Marazzo added, “Homosexuality is not a disease but a natural variant of human behavior, and as such it should be accepted and respected.”
Francis’ comments came at an awkward time for the pope, with international news publishing stories of individuals calling for his resignation, intimating that he remained silent and failed to act on a sex scandal that has recently been exposed in the Church.
The startling remarks were published by the conservative Italian newspaper La Verità, quoting Cardinal Raymond Burke — a high-ranking Vatican conservative and perhaps the most prominent anti-Francis figure.
Cardinal Burke was quoted as saying that “homosexual culture” had found “roots inside the church and can be connected to the drama of abuses perpetrated on adolescents and young adults.”
The problem, he said, was not only among the clergy “but even within the hierarchy, which needs to be purified at the root.” While the cardinal’s views are not mainstream and have been roundly dismissed by researchers and others, it has generated a new discussion of homosexuality within the halls of the Vatican that has rippled to America’s shores.
This past weekend, a caustic letter published by the Vatican’s former top diplomat in the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, blamed a “homosexual current” in the Vatican hierarchy for sexual abuse.
It called for Francis’ resignation, accusing him of covering up for a disgraced cardinal, Theodore McCarrick. However the Washington Post and NY Times reported that Pope Francis’ backers decried the accusations, calling his letter “another desperate attack from frustrated conservatives still unaccustomed to not getting their way.” The pope has refused to comment on the matter.
Sounding like a politician just indicted on a tax evasion charge, Vatican officials expressed confidence that the accusations were without merit, would be disproved, and the pontiff would be exonerated.
However, at least one senior official interviewed by the Times backed Archbishop Vigano. The Rev. Jean François Lantheaume, the former first counsellor at the apostolic nunciature in Washington, said Archbishop Vigano “tells the whole truth. I am a witness.”
Meanwhile, even with the new storm of controversy, Pope Francis appears more popular than ever. He has charted his own course in style, words and philosophy and enjoys favorability among 90 percent of Catholics, 74 percent white mainline Protestants, 68 percent of unaffiliated and 60 percent of white Evangelicals.
Francis' tenure as pope has also been notable by the LGBT community for his adoption of a more conciliatory tone toward LGBT people than that of his predecessors. "But anyone who utters Christian words without putting them into practice hurts oneself and others," said Pope Francis in 2013.
It was also back in 2013 that the pope won the hearts and minds of the gay community when in July of that year he made the memorable remarks about gay priests during a spontaneous exchange with the press. He stated, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?”
Gay priests, he added, “They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency [same-sex attraction] is not the problem... they're our brothers." The pontiff’s groundbreaking remarks led SFGN to make him, along with Apple CEO, our “Man of the Year” for 2013.
The pope’s seemingly relaxed attitude towards gay men and women led to scores of discussions within the mainstream media, and a cross section of editorial support from the LGBTQ community.
Adding to his popularity and new style, in March of 2015, Pope Francis joined 90 prison inmates for lunch during a visit to Naples, including 10 from the ward which houses those who are gay, transgender, or have HIV/AIDS.
In an online report explaining the relationship the Pope has developed with gays worldwide, the Human Rights Campaign summarized a history of interactions the pontiff has had with the LGBTQ community.
They called the partnership “complicated.” Others might say conflicted. Either way, it has become newsworthy again this month, following the pontiff’s remarks on his flight back from Ireland this week.
Regarding the pope, the Human Rights Campaign report, available online, concluded, “There is a basic incoherence between the Pope's words and the Church's teaching on homosexuality that in reality present serious moral dilemmas for Catholic mothers and fathers of LGBTQ children. At the end, it leaves parents with more questions than answers, and leaves children with continued vulnerability.”