Last week Pope Francis surprised many people when he stated gays should be respected, and deserve to be treated with dignity, while on a trip back to the Vatican from Brazil. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” said Francis to a group of reporters. Its hard to disagree with the Pope's sentiments after reading power testimonies such as this story. men at a funeral . The news about the Pope's comments surfaced at the same time when another prominent religious figure, Bishop Desmond Tutu, has said that he would not want to go to heaven if it is "homophobic."
The Papal Pendulum
Controversy over the existence of homosexuality in the Catholic Church was especially present during Pope Francis' predecessor's time in office. Some Traditional Catholics, equated homosexuality with pedophilia. They rationalized that the problem with child abuse was linked to homosexuality because the majority of victims were boys. However, liberally-minded Catholics say that there is no proof that homosexuals are more likely to molest young children than heterosexuals, and that it shouldn't matter because the clergy are supposed to be celibate once it is in office. Both sides of the debate agree that the banning of gay men from the clergy will create a shortage of priests, that will curtail the church's global outreach.
While Pope Francis is not embracing same-sex marriage anytime soon, his views are in stark contrast when juxtaposed with his predecessor. In his first encyclical released in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed the Church's position on homosexuality. This papal directive, was embraced by many conservative Catholics who were concerned that secular society might influence church policy. Pope Benedict XVI didn't stop at homosexuality either. He even criticized, agnosticism, atheism, Marxism and liberalism. For Benedict, the battle against these ideologies was part of a larger war pitting absolute truth against cultural relativism. This is why many Catholics were surprised, especially conservatives, when Pope Francis declared that even Atheists can get to heaven.
No Christian Consensus
The debate over homosexuality in the church isn't limited to Catholics. There are other Christian denominations that have struggled with this issue. Desmond Tutu's Anglican church has had to wrestle with this issue as well. Episcopal church made headlines when it consecrated the first openly gay bishop. This decision, created tension between the American Episcopal church and it's parent branch, the Anglican church.
During the time Ratzinger was articulating the Vatican's position on homosexuality, the Lutheran church was finding it's voice in the debate. For example, in 2005 Bishops took action against a congregation in California and Minneapolis for installing gay clergy.
In 2004, the debate over homosexuality in the church, caught the media's attention as a Lesbian Methodists minister from Pennsylvania, went to trial. Rev Irene Elizabeth Stoud, a pastor in Philadelphia, was accused of having an active Lesbian relationship. Stoud even had a defense attorney to arbitrate her case in the court of Methodist law.
There are also mainline churches that are considerably liberal on the issue of homosexuality such as the Unity and Metropolitan Community churches. The United Church of Christ, was in the news for its controversial AD over its acceptance of gay couples. The denomination, hosting 6,000 churches and over 1 million members, paid $1.7 million to have the AD featured on TV commercials.
There are verses dispersed throughout the bible that are prima facie anti-homosexual such as Leviticus 18:22 and Deuteronomy 23 17-18. However, many liberal observers such as Bishop Carlton Pearson, and Bishop Shelby Sponge, who argue that it is important to look at the verses in its proper context. For example, much of the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus are related to hygiene that dont apply to non-Jews such as eating selfish, touching pigs skin, and wearing cloth of two different fabrics.
Although Jesus did not say anything specifically condemning Homosexuals many conservative Christians point to the letters from Paul such as 1:26-27 to support their views on homosexuality. However it should be noted that during that time the Romans lived in the Greek city of Corinth, where the locals worshiped a hermaphrodite, and straight men and women would exchange sex roles as a part of worship. Similarly the city of Sodom is often cited as an example of God's wrath against a society that accepted homosexuality. Again, looking at the historical context, the city of Sodom had many problems associated with it including idolatry, pride, slothfulness. Homosexuality wasn't the city's main moral issue.
Where Homophobia meets Christianity
Still, even today, Christian fundamentalists try to use the story of Sodom to discriminate against gays. One of the most recent examples, is Uganda where Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) travels to Uganda to meet with leaders such as David Baharit, who introduced and authored anti-homosexual bill that would make homosexuality a capital punishment. Despite enacting this legislation in 2009, Baharit was still invited to the White House for a Prayer Breakfast a year later. However, the invitation was later rescinded. Some Christian leaders, claim that gays commonly engage in coprophagy.
The remarks from both Pope Francis and Desmond Tutu demonstrate that homosexuality will continue to play a divisive role in Christianity. With over 200 denominations, Christianity is hardly monolithic when it comes to homosexuality.
The statements from these religious leaders, isn't going to cause a consensus in the Christian community over this issue, but it does offer Christians a much-needed moment of spiritual introspection.