In a recently debuted film, Fransesco, Pope Francis discusses his support of same-sex union laws. He explains that “homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it.” Supporters of gay rights welcome the Pope’s statement, arguing that a move toward LGBTQ+ inclusivity within the church is good and will have positive ramifications worldwide. Meanwhile, conservative Catholics have pushed back, arguing that any form of same-sex union is contrary to Church doctrine. Despite conflicting views about what Pope Francis’s support will mean for policy in the Catholic Church, his endorsement of same-sex union laws provides activists with the opportunity to make important gains.
Gay Politics and Catholic Influence: A divided church?
How the Pope’s recent endorsement of same-sex civil unions affects public opinion and the legal terrain for gay people somewhat depends on the context of each state. Some Catholic majority states already have adopted LGBTQ+ inclusive laws despite previous opposition from the Church. Notable examples include Malta, which has the one of the best legal scores for LGBTQ+ rights according to LGBTQ+ activist network ILGA-Europe, and Ireland, where voters passed a marriage referendum that legalized same-sex marriage. In these states, government and populations, despite close identification and historical association with the Catholic Church, have largely chosen to include and celebrate Queer identity—public opinion has moved positively over the past two to three decades and new legal rights have been introduced.
While some Catholic majority states have supported LGBTQ+ equality, this is not uniform across all Catholic societies. Poland is one such example . Over the past decade, legislation introduced by the government, particularly the conservative ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), has become considerably more homophobic and transphobic. There, politicians draw on Poland’s national identity and historical ties with the Church to “other” LGBTQ+ people. Their basic argument is that LGBTQ+ people are inherently at odds with, and an existential danger to, Polish national identity due to the Catholic Church’s anti-gay and anti-trans* doctrine.
Right-wing politicians in Poland promise to marginalize LGBTQ+ people in order to protect Polish ideals and values. National politicians in Poland have legitimated their claims by appealing to statements made by various Catholic leaders. For example, in 2014, the Polish Archbishop welcomed the fact that the family synod at the Vatican did not positively refer to LGBT people, implying that “real” family does not include LGBTQ+ people. Moreover, during debates about amendments to the Polish Criminal Code in 2015, MP Krystyna Pawłowicz drew on Catholic opposition to LGBTQ+ rights when she was quoted in the press saying that “the government continues to introduce a sick ideology of gender, which promotes sexual pathologies.” Similar political ties to Catholicism are being used to oppose LGBTQ+ equality in Brazil and the Philippines, where right-wing politicians deploy Catholic national identity and political homophobia as part of an electoral strategy to retain power, and religious justification for homophobia and transphobia is not uncommon globally.
It is clear that there exists substantial variation in how countries internalize and act out their ties to Catholicism. How historical and cultural connections to the Church influence state policy and social attitudes is not uniform. Despite all of this variation and uncertainty, the recent endorsement of same-sex union laws creates opportunities for LGBTQ+ activists to generate change.
Transnational Activism: Opportunities to Build a Better World
Change in Europe’s position on LGBTQ+ issues has demonstrated that transnational efforts to change policy and attitudes has been effective, even in the face of Catholic opposition. Scholarship on transnational LGBTQ+ activism has emphasized that cross-national activism has been effective at changing perceptions of LGBTQ+ people in target countries. This activism draws on the theory of visibility politics, which contends that as a marginalized group becomes more visible within a society they also become more widely accepted. By engaging in cross national activism, LGBTQ+ people in Europe have been able to promote positive change within less progressive states.
Transnational activism in Europe has been largely effective in promoting more positive attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people, even when there has been Catholic opposition. Within Poland, despite politicians’ homophobic and transphobic rhetoric and policies, activists have pushed for positive change. According to data from the European Social Survey, the percentage of Polish people who believe that gay people should be free to live as they choose rose from about 46% in 2002 to about 54% in 2018. In his book When States Come Out, Dr. Phillip Ayoub documents how raising awareness around LGBTQ+ people in Poland has led to more acceptance and tolerance within the society.
This progress has been accomplished while simultaneously confronting beliefs embedded in Catholic identity. Thus, the Pope’s recent endorsement of same-sex unions and calls for tolerance provide activists important opportunities to make gains in less accepting Catholic states. Where societies may have previously used Catholicism to justify anti-gay policies and laws, activists can now point to the Pope’s statement in rebuttal. This can change the minds of previously unsupportive Catholics, and influence positive change in policy and legislation. Importantly, activists can use the Pope’s support of same-sex union laws to advocate for legal recognition of same-sex couples in Catholic majority states.
Enacting same-sex union laws may seem like a small step forward in the larger journey of achieving full LGBTQ+ equality and justice (e.g., securing job and housing discrimination protections), but some research demonstrates that following the implementation of same-sex union legislation can have positive ramifications on support for gay rights, which can eventually have knock on effects that lead to better policy outcomes for LGBTQ+ people. Importantly, progress in positive attitudes toward non-heteronormative acceptance of sexuality can lead to a better acceptance of non-cisgendered people, though this is certainly not guaranteed. Therefore, it seems important that activists capitalize on the Pope’s support for same-sex unions as a part of a longer-term strategy to achieve full LGBTQ+ equality in Europe and beyond.