A president struggling in the polls at home recently traveled to the Vatican. He was hoping that a photo with the wildly popular Pope Francis might boost his dismal approval ratings. But because the president had been championing historic LGBT legislation to appeal to his base, some wondered if the pope would actually use their meeting to chastise the president — reminding him how the policies he favors are out of sync with church teachings.
Barack Obama, right? No — the president was Nigeria’s embattled leader, President Goodluck Jonathan.
As we all know, the media reported, analyzed, critiqued, conjectured and speculated on every aspect of President Obama’s meeting with Pope Francis, including whether or not the two men would discuss same-sex marriage and other LGBT rights in the United States. But five days earlier, with little attention or fanfare, Pope Francis received Mr. Jonathan, fresh off the president signing a bill criminalizing homosexuality in Nigeria.
According to the law, enacted in January, any citizen who enters into a union with a person of the same sex faces a 14-year prison sentence. Gay Nigerians who simply assemble with like-minded others could also face jail time. Mr. Jonathan is facing a tough re-election battle next year, and the law was widely seen as an effort to shore up support among conservative Nigerians. Since its enactment, journalists have documented frightening stories of violence committed against gay men.
Catholic bishops in Nigeria, in a letter to Mr. Jonathan, heralded the new law as “courageous” and “a clear indication of the ability of our great country to stand shoulders high in the protection of our Nigerian and African most valued cultures of the institution of marriage.”
They weren’t the only religious leaders happy with a stepping-up of repression against gay Africans. In February, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a bill that threatens openly gay Ugandans with lifetime prison sentences. While Catholic leaders rejected the 2009 version of the bill, which contained an infamous death penalty provision, some bishops — as well as Anglican and Orthodox leaders — have been vocal in their support of the most recent measure. (Africa is the Roman Catholic Church’s fastest-growing region in terms of membership.)
In response to the developments in Nigeria and Uganda, the Vatican said nothing. The pope also said nothing publicly on the issue of gay rights during the Nigerian president’s audience. (An official Vatican announcement said the two men talked about “the protection of the dignity of the human person and his or her fundamental rights” but did not specify further. At least one media outlet in Nigeria reported that Mr. Jonathan “justified” his country’s new law in his audience with the pope.)
Had this all happened just over a year ago, when Pope Benedict XVI was routinely reminding the world of the Catholic Church’s opposition to gay rights, it might have been unsurprising. The church’s fear and rejection of LGBT people was palpable then, with few exceptions. But with the softer, gentler touch of Pope Francis and his widely heralded reputation as a liberal reformer, the Vatican’s recent silence has raised some eyebrows — and some ire.
Violence and discrimination against gays and lesbians around the world is very real and, in places, growing. From Nigeria to Uganda to Russia, efforts to codify rampant homophobia and lend legitimacy to the mobs that torment sexual minorities have widespread backing. That some Catholic bishops support these laws seems anathema to the Gospel that they are supposed to uphold, their critics argue, in particular to the central tenets of acceptance and kindness — a stance to which the pope seemed to lend his support in much-lauded comments last year.
Why, then, won’t Pope Francis speak out more directly against political leaders like Mr. Jonathan and against his own bishops who support draconian treatment of gay people? Some say failing to do so threatens to derail his conciliatory image, hinged on engaging in dialogue with a changing world.
The Catholic Church still teaches that sex between two men or two women is “intrinsically disordered.” Yet last summer, Pope Francis captured the world’s imagination when he decided to emphasize the other half of that controversial teaching: the side that says gay people must nonetheless be afforded dignity and respect.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” the pope told a reporter on a flight to Rome from Rio de Janeiro.
Later the pope lamented in an interview that the church had become bogged down by its obsession with opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.
Progressive and openly gay Catholics cheered. The Advocate, the nation’s largest LGBT magazine, put the pope on its cover. Some bishops even seemed to drop their guard a bit and challenge traditional Catholics to think more broadly about the issue. The bishop of St. Petersburg, Fla., Robert Lynch, wrote on his blog, “The Church needed to be kinder and gentler to those who identify themselves as gay and lesbian, be less judgmental and more welcoming.” Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, meanwhile, said that “homosexuals are not criminals” and do not deserve incarceration.
Conservatives struck back, however, noting that Pope Francis hadn’t changed any doctrine. Words were just words; formally speaking, the pope was in line with his predecessors.
But in the Catholic context, words and symbols can profoundly change lives.
“Francis’s new tone has done immense good. Many gay and lesbian Catholics have told me that they feel welcome in their church for the first time in years, sometimes for the first time in their lives,” James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at America told me. Father Martin also thinks that what the pope has said should make bishops around the world reconsider how they engage on gay issues. “In countries where [gays] are in fact judged, and judged harshly, one of the most important moral voices of our time is saying, ‘Stop.’ It’s a critical step forward,” he said.
Still, even among those pleased by the pope’s relatively liberal approach to gay rights, many still wonder why he’s stopped short — why he hasn’t condemned the worst abuses against gay people. This concern even prompted a Twitter and email campaign, PopeSpeakOut, earlier this year.
The disconnect between the pope’s words and actions stems partly from the fact that Pope Francis appears hesitant to become involved with what the Vatican considers local issues, which includes national laws punishing gay people for their sexual orientation. And although counterintuitive, this hesitance actually reflects a certain liberalism about the internal dynamics of the church:
Catholic progressives, used to the rigid, authoritarian rule of Rome over the past few decades, have long wanted to see the devolution of power away from the Vatican. This was the only way, they believed, that lay people — with more access to bishops than to Rome’s highest echelons — could gain some input in the church’s decision-making processes.
Pope Francis seems to have taken this concern to heart: Part of his much-celebrated reforms appears to include returning authority to local bishops. In November, in his first major written work as head of the church, the pope said, “I … must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization.”
But bishops, not a centralized Roman bureaucracy, are the men supporting campaigns against same-sex marriage in the United States, and they’re the ones supporting laws that imprison gays in Africa. Liberal Catholics, in other words, are seeing both the good and the bad of what they wished for.
Now, many human rights advocates say silence from the pope, regardless of internal church issues, isn’t acceptable, that human dignity should trump bureaucratic reform. In October, Human Rights Watch published a letter to Pope Francis asking the church to use its influence “to protect people in sexual and gender minorities from further abuse.” HRW wanted the pope to “[p]ublicly condemn violence against people in sexual and gender minorities” and support the “decriminalization of consensual, sexual relationships and support the repeal of other unjust criminal penalties for people in sexual and gender minorities.”
As for whether his voice would matter, it’s certainly possible for the pope — especially this pope — to use his global platform to drive a conversation, perhaps even sway opinion. He led a massive protest against Western military intervention in Syria last September, for instance, rallying Catholics for a worldwide day of prayer. He has showed the world that he knows how to mobilize believers.
What’s more, even during the hostile climate created under Pope Benedict, there were some positive rumblings at the Vatican that show Pope Francis likely wouldn’t have much to lose in speaking out against egregious violations of LGBT rights. Responding to protests against its unwillingness to back a U.N. resolution on sexual orientation, Rome said in 2008 that it would support eliminating criminal penalties for homosexuality (even while it would not support same-sex unions and some other policies). More recently, Pope Francis’s personal representative to Uganda, Archbishop Michael Blume, expressed concern about Uganda’s anti-gay bill and wrote that he hoped the Holy Spirit would give Mr. Museveni “wisdom” as the president considered signing it into law.
Given his own public comments, Archbishop Blume’s words and other signals, it’s probable that Francis is against repressive, anti-gay laws. And already, in his first year as pope, he has taken an important step toward a new dynamic around LGBT issues in the church.
Yet if he truly wants to move forward, he will have to build on his initial outreach and ask, publicly, that Catholic bishops and other leaders keep up. If the pope truly wants the Catholic Church to chart a course for social justice around the world, his leadership on this issue must demonstrate that his powerful institution is a genuine voice for the oppressed.
Michael O’Loughlin works in strategic nonprofit communications. He wrote this for Foreign Policy.