March 20, 2013

Habemus Papam, No Homo

In a letter sent to monasteries in Buenos Aires about Argentina’s now-approved marriage equality legislation, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio wrote: “Let's not be naive, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.” The announcement of Cardinal Bergoglio as the newly elected Pope, now Pope Francis I, was matched by resounding thoughts on his Jesuit background and of course, the celebration of the first non-European pope. However, for LGBT persons, Pope Francis’ reputation for very strong thoughts on sexuality and same-sex parent adoption is not easily overlooked.

Like Pope Benedict, Pope Francis is a complicated figure with a mixed bag of histories, theologies, and practices that both set him apart and yet align him with past and present Catholic leaders. Aside from his very orthodox views on sexuality and same-sex parent adoption, there is a lot of controversy over his role and relationship to the military junta during The Dirty War in Argentina. Already Pope Francis’ history is preceding him with allegations about not protecting two of his fellow priests that were kidnapped during this period. It is also rumored that he helped to conceal political prisoners during the dictatorship. However, these charges were not substantiated, but we'll continue to hear more about the world becomes more acquainted with the new head of the Catholic Church.

A lot of attention has been brought to Pope Francis’ intentional work with poverty and the AIDS community. As a Jesuit and like many prelates of the Catholic Church, this work is notable and an important part of their ministry. Naturally, with a figure elected from Latin America, with an intentional focus on work with the poor, conversations around liberation theology have been foregrounded. A “preferential option for the poor” is at the heart of liberation theology and during many of the Latin American dictatorships we saw liberation theology take an important and subversive role. However, not unlike his predecessor Benedict, Francis has openly criticized liberation theology, even as other Latin American religious leaders embraced this necessary move for social justice in the Americas and the developing world.

With this very heavy background, it easy to understand the hesitation among LGBT persons to not be in celebration of yet another religious leader who has a history of rejecting gay and lesbian children of God. However, as a queer Latin American theologian, it is not that easy for me to make such a conclusion. His resistance and intentional moves to distinguish himself from liberation theology does not concern me. Liberation theology has opened the discussion for the ways in which oppressed bodies relate to the divine and each other and has raised issues of racial and class difference, which I see at the heart of queer theologies of color. The liberationist emphasis on the “preferential option for the poor” speaks to a universality of God’s love, which excludes no one. However, queer voices have never been at the foreground of liberationist literature, no were sexual minorities and other gender deviants a priority for early liberation thinkers.  Early liberation theologians failed to see the shared experiences of oppression of queers and our own spiritual journeys as minorities. So for Pope Francis to distinguish himself from liberationists, I am neither worried nor excited, since in many situations as a queer person I am even distinguished from liberation theologians.

So does Pope Francis have it out for the gays? It is far more complicated than just a yes or no, especially if we think about it within a Latin American context. Traditionally, within Latin America sexuality is based on sexual positionality; that is, homosexuality was defined only by what position a man assumes during sexual encounters with another man (lesbians were usually exempt from this taxonomy). In other words, homosexual men were only receptive partners during same-sex intercourse, while the other partner was able to retain a masculine, heterosexual marker of identity. This is a cultural context that needs to be considered when thinking about the relationships between race, sexuality, and religion. I argue that current progressive theologies neglect to develop and imagine understandings of marginalized bodies by considering race, class, and sexuality as categories that shape one another.

What I see in Pope Francis’ complicated and messy background is the potential and hope for a new form of progressive theology and ministry that can emerge within the Catholic Church. Taking his name from St. Francis of Assisi, the papacy is already setting a new tone for his ministry. One of Pope Francis’ most vocal supporters has been Leonardo Boff, one of the founders of liberation theology, a man silenced by the Vatican in 1985 because of his criticism of the church in his book The Church, Charisma and Power. With regard to the new Pope, Boff writes:
Francis isn’t a name; it’s a plan for a Church that is poor, simple, gospel-centered, and devoid of all power. It’s a Church that walks the way together with the least and last, that creates the first communities of brothers and sisters who recite the breviary under the trees with the birds. It’s an ecological Church that calls all beings those sweet words “brothers and sisters”. Francis was obedient to the Church and the popes and at the same time he followed his own path with the gospel of poverty in hand…
This is a beautiful vision for the church for queer people and it is the same vision I share. As queer people, our history is messy and complicated, but we have traversed the wilderness in meaningful ways that have taken us out of Stonewall, into the streets, into the voting booths, and hopefully now back into the pews of the church to write our own church history for how Christ’s gospel of radical love and justice can be acted out in our contemporary context.

Original post at The Bilerico Project on March 20, 2013