Pope Francis in the Philippines

Last week Pope Francis conducted a five-day “Mercy and Compassion” visit to the Philippines, to be with survivors of super-typhoon Haiyan, the strongest on record. Haiyan struck the Philippines in November 2013, displacing 4 million people and leaving 7,000 dead or missing. The visit was an inspiring moment to the majority of Filipinos where almost 80% are Catholics, while at the same time offered crucial insight into the limitations to Pope Francis’ apparent openness about welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals of faith to the church.

While many Catholic LGBT individuals in the Philippines—and elsewhere—long have reconciled their sexuality and gender identity with their personal faith, few harbored any illusions about the official stance of their church as expressed through the Catholic Catechism (a summary of the principles of the Catholic faith in the form of questions and answers, used for the instruction of Catholics). The Catechism calls on Catholics to act with compassion, sensitivity, respect, and hospitality toward homosexuals but it also demands that gays and lesbians remain celibate, refraining from entering into meaningful adult sexual relationships because it is gravely depraved and "intrinsically disordered." It has little guidance on gender identity, other than noting that men and women were created as such. In fact, though the Holy See in its international diplomacy has been quite hostile to any reference to “gender” (seeing it as departing from the biological sex binary created by God), the Catholic Church has been mostly silent on transgender issues.  

Over the past couple of years, however, Pope Francis has appeared to approach the sexuality question—and to a lesser degree the gender identity question—with more openness than previous Pontiffs, and even in marked departure from the views expressed by Pope Francis when he was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In 2010, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, described same-sex marriage as the work of the devil and a “destructive attack on God’s plan.” He also said that gay adoption is a form of discrimination against children.  

While Pope Francis has never expressed support for marriage equality or adoption by same-sex couples, he has shown understanding that it is possible to be gay and simultaneously a person of faith. In July 2013 Pope Francis asked reporters, speaking about homosexual priests: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” He also and said,  “they [gay priests] shouldn’t be marginalized.” In September of the same year, Pope Francis, when asked if he "approved" of homosexuality said: "Tell me, when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.”  

These statements were a welcome surprise, so much so, that in December 2013 both the Advocate and Time magazine named Pope Francis “Person of the Year.”

The apparent softening of the Pope’s position also motivated a coalition of 12 LGBT groups to write an open letter to Pope Francis, urging him to address and condemn the human rights violations experienced by LGBT people in the Philippines. The groups cited stigma and discrimination that directly relates to the increasing number of LGBT killings in the country, rising HIV cases, and abuse and discrimination faced by LGBT young people in schools and in the family. A broader coalition of LGBT and human rights groups organized an LGBT Community Solidarity March that joined millions of Catholics on Sunday for the Pope’s mass in Rizal Park.

Participants of the LGBT Community Solidarity March. Photo Courtesy Rev. Ceejay Agbayani Jr.

Some activists are indeed hoping that the Pope’s, albeit measured, message of compassion and acceptance will trickle down to the Catholic Church in the Philippines. Angie Umbac of Rainbow Rights Project Philippines reasoned: “If the Philippine Catholic Church is truly Christ-like, they will follow the example that is shown by their leader, Pope Francis, who shows compassion to gays and lesbians, and fearlessly takes on social issues because that was how Jesus Christ lived.”

“Giving his opinions on being an ally might make them realize not to judge, but to accept not only lesbians and gays, but also bisexuals and transgender persons since the Church has been making us transgender people invisible." said Popoy Christian of the Association of Transgender Men of the Philippines (ATMP).

Other members of the LGBT community are not so optimistic, noting the local Church leaders have retained conservative Catholic positions even after the Pope made statements in support of homosexual people of faith. Meggan Evangelista from the Akbayan LGBT Collective opined, “I don't expect much from him in terms of even asking for attempts to condemn human rights violations against LGBT people.” Chris Salvatierra, former Coordinator of Task force Pride (TFP) stated, “The Philippine Catholic Church hierarchy & its allies will not follow because they are afraid of change.“  

“I don’t think his views will translate to anything in terms of acceptance and policy making especially here in the Philippines, considering our conservative culture,” said Daria Barra of Babaylanes Incorporated.

Indeed, while Pope Francis’ statements may seem progressive, there are always caveats, notably in the position of the Catholic Church on the family, and on transgender issues.

On January 15, Pope Francis celebrated mass for bishops, priests and nuns in Manila, where he urged those present to “proclaim the beauty and truth of the Christian message to a society which is tempted by confusing presentations of sexuality, marriage and the family” and again during the Meeting of Families of the same day, when he said: “the family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life...”

The statements made by the Pope drew various reactions from the LGBT community. Reasoning that the Pope’s statements are nothing new, Fire Sia, who identifies as gender queer, said: “There was no false hope from the pontiff. If you believed for one moment that he would be different, look back and see that he supported equality of all people within the limits of his religious beliefs.” Others were disappointed. “Where is the much bragged about compassion, to say nothing of equality and justice—which he utterly fails to comprehend?” wondered Abbot Richard Mickley of The Order of St. Aelred.

And while disappointment was the general sentiment, Dawn Madrona of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) cautions that, “these statements make us more vulnerable to discrimination and bigotry.”

Fight for LGBT Rights Continues

For most LGBT activists, the Pope’s statements will not hinder their LGBT rights work. “Why do we have to insist that we be accepted? Should it be important that the Catholic Faith accepts us or not? Acceptance is appreciated but I don't think we should demand it. We don't deserve to be begging for things we are entitled to,” remarked Evangelista.

Jean Enriquez of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women – Asia Pacific (CATW-AP) saw an opening to more engagement with allies in the Church. “We should note schisms within the Church created by the Pope's surprising statements about allowing divorced and remarried lay people to receive communion, to treat LGBT people fairly and not judge.” said Enriquez.

While the Pope’s notably conservative statements during his visit to the Philippines may increase the challenge to attain equality and acceptance for LGBT rights here, LGBT activists can always focus on the promise of the Constitution that clearly states the separation of Church and State. “Same- sex marriage is not a religious issue but on the issue of equal protection of the Law,” reasoned Rev. Ceejay Agbayani of the LGBTs Christian Church. Ron de Vera of the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus emphasized: “We should keep the struggle in purely secular spaces like legislation.”