Whatever your religious beliefs or otherwise, the Catholic Church continues to play a powerful role in world politics and in the day-to-day lives of millions of people around the world.
An institution built on thousands of years of history, the Catholic Church continues to try and evolve to reflect the changing landscape of social attitudes and political realities while navigating its scandals.
In what's being seen as a big move, a new documentary focused on Pope Francis has revealed perhaps the most progressive statements yet that the Catholic Church has made in relation to LGBTQ people.
“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God...” said Pope Francis, being interviewed on camera for the documentary. “You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”
For most of us, that may seem like just stating the obvious. But, in the context of the Catholic Church, this is a pretty big deal.
The history of the Church
The Catholic Church traces its origins to the disciples of Jesus Christ, but it was in the year 380 AD that the Church as we know it today began to emerge. It was at that time that Catholicism became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
While there have been various ups and downs throughout the subsequent centuries, during the 15th and 16th centuries the Catholic Church dramatically expanded its reach by supporting the colonial ambitions of the European powers. As new territories were conquered, missionaries spread Catholicism throughout Asia, Africa, the islands of the Pacific, and the Americas.
Today, the Catholic Church is the world’s largest Christian church, with a congregation of around 1.3 billion people.
Early views on LGBTQ people
At the time that the Catholic Church emerged, it was effectively defining itself in relation to the culture and traditions of the Roman Empire. From its early days, the Church issued laws against sodomy but these were initially aimed at ensuring discipline within the ranks of its priests and monks. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the Church made it clear that the ban on sodomy applied to everyone who followed the Catholic doctrine. In the highly influential Summa Theologica - written in the 13th century - Thomas Aquinas, who was a highly influential leader within the Catholic Church, stated that sodomy or “the unnatural vice” is the greatest of the sins of lust.
Notable statements by the Catholic Church in recent decades, include:
- 1976: Pope Paul VI published a statement that outlawed extra-marital sex, including same-sex intercourse.
- 1993: Pope John Paul II published a statement that made a distinction between homosexual intercourse and homosexual orientation. The Pope stated that homosexual intercourse is performed by choice of the will, whereas homosexual orientation is usually not a matter of free choice. This enabled the Church to continue to take a hard line against same-sex intercourse while having a softer line against people who identified as LGBTQ.
- 2013: Pope Francis reaffirmed the Church’s position that homosexual acts were sinful, but homosexual orientation was not.
- 2018: The Vatican used the acronym LGBT for the first time in an official document. The document looked at how the Catholic Church could better support LGBT youth.
- 2018: Pope Francis made a statement that acknowledged that homosexual people have existed in the whole history of humankind. He also said that homosexuality is not an illness, and that Catholic parents should talk with their homosexual children and that they shouldn’t be excluded from the family.
- 2020: Pope Francis, discussing the topic in an interview said: “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God. You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”
Is the Catholic Church an ally of the LGBTQ community?
While progress has been made, the Catholic Church is a long way from embracing LGBTQ people as equals. Changes in the teachings of the Church appear to have been made in order to respond to socially progressive advocates within their congregation, as opposed to any fundamental beliefs in human rights.