Hope, the Pope, and LGBTQ+ Reform

By Brian Nietzel, reduced version of 1/3/24 Article in Baptist News Global

With the pope trending way more than usual, I decided to do my homework and see what all the buzz was about. I come away with renewed hope for the Christian church at large. Despite other headlines and rhetoric to the contrary, Pope Francis is modeling what many of us advocates are observing behind the scenes – that many Christian leaders are rethinking their response and responsibility to LGBTQ people.

Since elected in 2013, Pope Francis has advanced respect and inclusion of LGBTQ people, all while holding to traditional Catholic teaching on family and marriage. Whatever your beliefs are on such matters, you have to marvel at how he sees these seemingly opposed views as quite compatible.

The Vatican released a game-changing document in December, which formally allows Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples, marking a radical shift in policy. The Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage has not changed, and this new document affirms that. However, restating their position on marriage is not the point of this new declaration. Rather, it is about changing church practices and serving LGBTQ people in ways that to date have been withheld.

In the Catholic Church, blessings are an embedded practice, with roots throughout all Christian history. A priestly blessing is a rite consisting of a ceremony and prayers performed with the authority of the church, signifying dedication to some sacred purpose. I’m not a Catholic, but that sure sounds meaningful to me.

The new declaration states that by restricting blessings, “There is the danger that a pastoral gesture that is so beloved and widespread will be subjected to too many moral prerequisites” and thus become exclusive. It adds: “When people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it.”

Conservative evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham and Al Mohler delivered quick rebukes, both making clear what they feel is the correct Christian response. I’ll not recap their commentaries, however I will acknowledge the stark contrast of their convictions with Pope Francis’ ability to endorse both traditional doctrine and compassionate practices. It saddens me that some consider these irreconcilable. It is not that controversial to bless and include those you disagree with, let alone to take responsibility for the church’s historic mistreatment of LGBTQ people.

In 2016, the Marin Foundation released findings from a landmark study on religion and the LGBTQ community (published in Us Versus Us).⁠ The multi-year research included 1,700-plus respondents in all 50 states. The study found that 86% of LGBTQ people were raised in the church, and 54% left after age 18 (versus 27% of the general U.S. population)⁠, with the top reason being negative personal experiences⁠.

Unfortunately, LGBTQ experiences with church generally remain unresolved and unaccounted for, taking a back seat to theological debates. Their tender stories deserve our attention. I have documented nearly 200 stories of LGBTQ people and compiled seven excerpts that represent common themes of fear, rejection, despair, and self-hatred. I invite you to take a moment and read these findings. They are not easy to read. Yet they are vital to know.

The more I invite Christians to rethink how to love our LGBTQ neighbor, the more I am convinced empathy is the key. A pastor friend recently shared what he’s learned about LGBTQ people growing up in church, how they begged God not to be gay, how God did not answer that prayer. He said, “Until that reality sinks in, you’re not ready to have the conversation.”

Thankfully, many Christians are having the conversation. Like this hopeful event where 250 churchgoers and leaders representing two dozen local churches gathered at City Church of Long Beach, Calif. The event was in partnership with Oriented to Love, a program that facilitates church dialogues on sexuality and gender, often amidst deep theological differences.

Their LGBTQ panel was intentionally diverse in their views, including three conservatives and three progressives. Whereas most might have expected the night to devolve into a verbal brawl, it played out quite differently. With humility and respect, the panelists advocated for each other and for a more welcoming church.

Call me optimistic or even naive, but I believe we have much reason for hope. Yes, extreme voices seem to lead the conversation, making the noise and the news. Yet they do not represent the majority. From my vantage point, I see an increasingly hopeful narrative playing out.

Like the event in Long Beach. Like Pope Francis. And like many of you, who are rethinking the Christian response to LGBTQ people — which is less about our positions and more about our practices. And that’s great news, for whether your views lean traditional or progressive, all of us can be a part of what I propose matters most: advocating for people more than our positions.

Brian Nietzel lives in Atlanta and is the founder of Making Things Right.

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