The Current

Pope's stance on same-sex unions an important step for Catholic Church: priest

The pope’s endorsement of same-sex civil unions is a “highly significant” change in tone for the Vatican that could help change the way church leaders around the world approach the topic, says a Jesuit priest who has made supporting LGBT Catholics a cornerstone of his work.

'The church ... needs to listen to this community, which they so far have not done,' says Father James Martin

In a new documentary about the life and work of Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church for the first time expressed his support for same-sex civil unions. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

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The pope's endorsement of same-sex civil unions is a "highly significant" change in tone for the Vatican that could help change the way church leaders around the world approach the topic, says a Jesuit priest who has made supporting LGBT Catholics a cornerstone of his work.

"There are a lot of bishops around the world, in the United States and Poland and other places, who have been saying that same-sex civil unions are a threat to traditional marriage and have been really, you know, campaigning against them," Father James Martin, editor at large of America Media, told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"And I think this is going to make them think twice before they talk about those things now, knowing how the pope feels."

In the new documentary Francesco, about Pope Francis's life and work, the head of the Catholic Church described gay people as "children of God," and called for "a civil union law" so they are "legally covered."

Pope Francis is believed to be the first pope to have used the word gay publicly, and has in the past made comments suggesting gay people should not face discrimination. But this is the first time he has made such a clear endorsement on the record in his role as pope, said Martin.

While his latest comments have drawn ire and concern from some conservative bishops, Martin said many people in the LGBT Catholic community are "delighted." 

"Obviously there are some that would want him to go further in terms of you know, having … wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples in the church," he said.

"But I think they're seeing this as another step in his outreach to LGBT Catholics, which he has been doing over the years, both in word and in deed."

Growing up gay in the church

Joey Laguio went to Catholic school all his life and knew he was gay from the age of about 10 or 11.

"I just remember … sitting through one of the masses and being told that, you know, something about being gay was intrinsically disordered, and lots of these things about how I would go to hell," he told Galloway.

"It was very hurtful. I think at the time, I just remember like, sitting in the pew and my, like, hands shaking and 10-year-old me just wanting to, like, cry and stuff." 

Joey Laguio says he remembers wanting to cry during mass as a child, because the church taught that 'being gay was intrinsically disordered.' (Samita Manhas)

He said the experience left him feeling extremely conflicted, because he also experienced a lot of love from fellow parish members.

"But also," said Laguio, "it felt like discrimination from at least a sermon level."

After so many years struggling internally and with navigating the Catholic Church, he said the pope's message is "really encouraging." Had he heard it as a kid growing up, it would likely have helped him open up to his family sooner about who he is, he added.

LGBT people 'treated like lepers,' says priest

Martin expressed his apologies to Laguio on behalf of the church, "because no 10-year-old boy should feel like that."

However, many people share that experience, Martin added.

"Unfortunately, a good deal of the rejection from Catholic families comes from what they hear in mass and what they hear from bishops. And, honestly, LGBTQ people are treated like lepers in the church," said Martin. 

"It's really shocking. So I really think the church basically just needs to listen to this community, which they so far have not done."

Father James Martin sits with Pope Francis. Martin says the pope's comments about same-sex civil unions are being seen 'as another step in his outreach to LGBT Catholics.' (Submitted by Father James Martin)

While Laguio appreciates the pope's statement, he said a shift in doctrine, rather than just tone, would be the "ultimate signal" that the church's words can lead to action in support of LGBT people. 

It's also important for the church to understand the experiences of people like Laguio.

"The Holy Spirit works through the lives of people like him and not simply the pope or bishops," Martin said. "And I think we need to first listen before we can do anything."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Kate Cornick and Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.

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