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Whether you feel encouraged or concerned by Pope Francis’s tone toward LGBTQ matters, we can all agree that it’s quite distinct from that of past pontiffs. The pope has left Catholic doctrines on the nature of sexuality and the imperative to live chastely untouched. But he has also made it clear that people cannot be reduced to their sinful tendencies and ought to be welcomed unconditionally. From openly inviting gay and trans people to meet with him at the Vatican, denouncing brutal sodomy laws, and publicly applauding ministries that serve LGBTQ people, like that of Fr. James Martin, S.J., Pope Francis has done more than any other pope to reach out to LGBTQ individuals. Some view Pope Francis as an “ally,” making gay folk feel comfortable in the Catholic Church by emphasizing God’s love more so than moral rules. Though they may be disappointed that he has not opened the door to sacramental gay marriages, many see his attitude to be a sign that the Church is headed on its way in that direction. 

As someone who tends more often than not to be attracted to people of the same sex, I must admit to having mixed feelings about the way Pope Francis addresses homosexuality. On one hand, I can already see how it has changed certain spaces in the Catholic Church for the better. His reminder that the adequate response to a person struggling with sin is not condemnation but patient accompaniment has converted the hearts of people I know who once had a genuine fear of or even disgust toward gay people.

On the other hand, I’ve met too many people who take his exhortation to “accompaniment” to mean they should reject Church teachings on chastity and encourage same-sex-attracted people like myself to pursue same-sex partnerships. For Catholics like me, who are earnestly attempting to live a chaste life conformed to Christ’s will, said forms of “accompaniment” don’t actually help to deepen my spiritual life.

Over time, I’ve encountered more and more people whose stories are similar to my own. I grew up in a culturally Catholic family. My parents made me do my sacraments and go to Mass on Easter and Christmas, but other than that, did very little to form me according to the teachings of the Church. They were fairly progressive, and told me from a young age that I could love whomever I wanted, even if it was another boy, as long as I was a good person and treated other people with respect.

Because my affect and interests were not like those of typical boys my age, it wasn’t long until kids started calling me gay. I didn’t believe them—until I entered my teen years and started finding myself attracted to male classmates. Around the start of eleventh grade, I slowly started to accept the fact that my romantic and sexual desires were predominantly for other guys, and toyed around with the prospect of coming out to my family and friends. But soon after, I started questioning if seeking a relationship with another guy was morally right, and if it would actually make me happy in the long run.

My eventual “coming out” to my parents was complicated: I simultaneously told them that I liked other guys, and that I was also thinking about taking Catholicism more seriously—which meant I probably wasn’t going to pursue relationships with guys. Baffled, they asked me to explain how I could think this way. After several frustrating conversations, they sent me to a gay psychologist, hoping that he could get me to accept myself and see there was nothing wrong with being gay. And yet, I remained unconvinced, and began practicing my faith more intentionally. I focused more on learning about Catholicism than figuring out what to do with my sexuality.

It wasn’t until I happened upon an article in the New York Times by Eve Tushnet that the pieces started coming together. Eve made a compelling case for how one could accept oneself, his or her sexuality, and the traditional teachings of Catholicism without falling into self-hate or shame. Tushnet’s witness gave me the motivation to take up the path of chastity—which, with time, I began to realize was easier said than done. It turns out that Jesus wasn’t lying when he said following him required picking up one’s cross. I have discovered that without the grace of God and the support of loving friends, living according to Christ's example is impossible.

Though I spend most of my time in open-minded social circles, there have been occasions when I have encountered hostility from other Catholics for being same-sex-attracted. More often than not, it was expressed implicitly—in the form of exclusion—rather than through outright condemnation or hate speech. For this reason, I appreciate that Pope Francis has condemned attitudes of judgmentalism or exclusion. 

At the same time, I’ve also come across Catholics who have discouraged me from living a life of chastity. Friends in lay movements have told me that I can’t be happy living alone, and that they can help me find a boyfriend. Another friend has said that she would pray for me “to learn to stop hating myself,” and accept that God wants me to marry another man. I’ve met priests in confession who have told me my commitment to chastity is praiseworthy, but that I shouldn’t stay closed off to finding a partner, as “the Church will soon change its teachings.” After I confessed to falling into the sin of lust, another priest told me that I’d be better off if I found a boyfriend already and stopped worrying about sin. I pushed back, telling him that his advice contradicted the teachings of the Church. He responded by telling me that the pope “is changing things.”

Pope Francis’s alleged ambiguity toward LGBTQ issues is in part the fault of the mainstream media, which often takes his statements out of context or twists them to mean something other than what he intended. When one reads through an entire speech or encyclical, it is clear that while he encourages more acceptance of gay-identifying people in the Church (even ones in irregular relationships), he also emphasizes that God designed sex for the sake of both unity and procreation. Part of the reason American Catholics struggle so much to understand this nuance is because of the remains of a puritanical mindset that sees people as either “saved” or “damned.” Without any “gray areas,” too many people think welcoming a gay person without jumping to tell them that gay sex is a sin is tantamount to endorsing same-sex marriage.

So I don’t completely blame the pope. But I must say I find it concerning that he offers public encouragement to Fr. James Martin and ministries that promote “acceptance” like New Ways (which has openly defied Church teaching), but not to ministries that offer support in the pursuit of chastity like Eden Invitation, the Courage Apostolate, or the Spiritual Friendship movement (of which Tushnet is a part). His lack of public engagement with gay people who are attempting to live according to the Church’s teachings makes me feel a bit forgotten and alone. When the pope gives such little acknowledgment to Catholics like me, is it any wonder that some feel comfortable trivializing my story and life choices?

When I say I want Pope Francis to recognize and give a platform to people like me, it’s not so much (though maybe just a little) for the sake of feeling “seen” or validated. Above all, I desire this because I, like everyone else, needs help. Though I try to avoid falling into sin, it doesn’t mean I don't struggle. I also need accompaniment—and not in the form of dismissing my attempts to live chastely and telling me to give it up and find a boyfriend already.

It is my hope that Pope Francis will start to make a sincere effort to encourage and accompany those of us who are trying—and sometimes failing, but trying nonetheless—to live according to the teachings of the Church. For as the pope himself has said, “we are part of the one flock of Christ that walks together.” And it is in walking together that we will experience more fully the infinitely merciful gaze of Christ.

Sebastian Alvarez writes from New York City. 

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Image by Alfredo Borba licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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