Is the Pope cool enough to take on homophobia in religion?

LGBT rights should be our Cool Pope's next frontier.

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Francis has done a lot to earn that “Cool Pope” moniker, he really has. Walking into America and taking the side of the poor is a bold move. This is a country, remember, in which more than 15 people (not even as a joke) think Donald Trump should be president. So, on his recent visit to the US in which he decried things like corporate greed, Cool Pope was met by a lot of angry men and women with immense, sculptural Republican hairdos shouting words like “Marxist”.

During his two-year papacy, Cool Pope has instigated a debate about the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on divorce, authorised priests to “forgive” women who have had abortions (yes, this is a far cry from actually allowing Catholic women autonomy over their bodies, but hey, it’s a start), and called for action on climate change. But, most importantly, perhaps, CP has channeled the focus of the Church away from sinful stalwarts like abortion, homosexuality and contraception – things he accused the Church of being “obsessed” with in a 2013 interview  and towards fighting global poverty. Something Jesus would think was quite cool, I imagine. But hey, I’m an agnostic Jewish lesbian.

Then again, in shifting the Vatican’s attention away from homosexuality hasn’t Cool Pope just swept the issue under one of their big, fancy rugs (I’ve never actually been to the Vatican, but I imagine they have these)? The Wikipedia entry for “Homosexuality and Roman Catholicism” is over 16,000 words long. That’s around twice the length of the entry for “Cat”. Anyone who’s been on the internet lately, other than to read this piece, will know this is kind of a big deal.

Catholicism’s relationship with homosexuality isn’t just “complicated”, it’s “thesis-length complicated”. I may not be a gay Catholic myself, but I’ve dated more than one of them. OK, we’re not talking full-on Opus Dei self-flagellators, but I know a little bit about lesbian Catholic guilt. Meanwhile, all Cool Pope has really added to the fiercely convoluted dialogue involving God and gayness is the phrase, “who am I to judge?”. This, he directed at gay priests. In all fairness though, even his use of the word “gay” (as apposed to the more clinical “homosexual”) marked him out as a liberal by Vatican standards.

Since Francis was made Pope in 2013, his progressiveness, or lack thereof, has been debated in many, many, many articles. What the authors of many of these many, many articles seem to forget is the fact that they’re not discussing a politician, but the anointed patriarch of a 2,000-year-old religion. Cool as he may be, Pope Francis probably isn’t going to turn the Vatican into the world’s plushest gay club anytime soon.

True progressiveness in religion seems to come about in baby steps – cute little pigeon-toed baby Jesus steps, if you like. But since religious acceptance is the final frontier in the global push for LGBT rights, the cleverer religious leaders should probably think about taking at least one grown-up Jesus step. And who better to do this than Cool Pope? Sure, if he were to don a rainbow Pope hat (that’s the technical term) and declare to the 1.2bn Roman Catholics of the world, “gay is OK”, not all of them would be immediately convinced. But, as I said of his stance on abortion, it would be a start. A fairly significant start, actually.

OK so, seeing as the Pope very recently met with homophobic Christianity’s new poster child, Kim Davis, the rainbow hat thing isn’t exactly imminent. Cool Pope, while in the US, allegedly told Davis – the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple – to “stay strong”. Really, Cool Pope? Not cool.

Meanwhile, in South America and parts of West Africa, in particular, the Catholic Church remains one of the loudest voices against progress of any kind. If religion is ever going to stop doing battle with modernity, Catholicism is one sect that could really stand to be a lot less “thou shalt not”.

After all, wasn’t it the Catholic Church that famously protected so many Jews during the Holocaust? (Yeah, let’s set the Spanish Inquisition to one side for a moment). And wasn’t John F Kennedy, one of the US’s most progressive leaders, also the only ever Catholic president? Not to mention (OK, fictional) President Bartlet of the West Wing, a Catholic who in one of the greatest TV moments ever completely eviscerates an anti-gay Christian. And, while we’re doing fictional, what about those Nazi car-wrecking nuns in The Sound of Music, eh? Anyway, fictional or genuine, Catholics have a history, albeit a modern one, of standing up for oppressed people. If anyone is going to take on religion’s anti-gay stigma, it might as well be a Catholic. Your move, Cool Pope.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.