Pope Francis has been widely praised as a progressive figure on LGBTQ issues. Fueled by some of the pope's comments on gay people ("Who am I to judge?"), some Democrats have praised Francis for his liberal views — with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, stating that Francis has led him to rethink his views on the Catholic Church.
But the pope isn't as progressive as these characterizations make him seem.
While the pope may represent some progress compared to his predecessors on LGBTQ issues, he is far from a liberal in any American sense of the word. He still opposes same-sex marriage, and he still repudiates modern views on gender identity that allow trans people — who identify with a gender different than the one assigned to them at birth — to live their lives more freely.
What Francis appears to be trying to do is make his Catholic Church more appealing to younger people, who are generally more liberal on LGBTQ issues. He has said, for example, that he wants to spend less time talking about and enforcing issues related to family and sexuality. And that makes sense if you want to appeal to a younger crowd, who will likely turn from any institution that treats LGBTQ people as fundamentally flawed.
But people shouldn't fall for the marketing pitch: Despite some of the rhetoric, the Catholic Church is still far behind where US liberals are on LGBTQ rights.
Francis has nice-sounding rhetoric for gay people, but the Church's basic message is unchanged
Most of the praise for Francis goes back to one of his early comments on gay people: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
But the pope later clarified these comments in a very important way: "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."
As William Saletan pointed out at Slate, this isn't a radical departure from what's been the typical line of conservative Catholics for some time now: "Love the sinner, hate the sin." Francis was saying that he won't "reject and condemn this person," but that still leaves room for condemning the sin of homosexuality itself.
Indeed, the Catholic Church has continued doing just that: The Church states that while gay people "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity," they are still "called to chastity" because "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."
Even more tellingly, Francis has affirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage. In a visit to the Philippines earlier this year, Francis warned of attempts to "redefine the very institution of marriage." And he previously said children have a right to grow up in households with opposite-sex parents: "Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child's development and emotional maturity."
So the pope has occasionally said things that, on their face, seem friendly to gay people. But when analyzed further, the basic teachings of the Catholic Church — and the pope — haven't changed at all: Homosexuality is still seen as a sin, gay people are still called to chastity, and same-sex marriage remains opposed.
On transgender issues, Francis isn't progressive at all
While the pope may adopt a kinder tone for gays and lesbians, he has done nothing of the sort for transgender people.
Last year, the pope condemned modern views on gender identity, going as far as comparing them to nuclear weapons. During an interview in October for the new book, Pope Francis: This Economy Kills, the pope said every historical period has "Herods" that "destroy, that plot designs of death, that disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation," according to the independent National Catholic Reporter.
The pope continued, NCR reported:
"Let's think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings," he continues. "Let's think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation."
"With this attitude, man commits a new sin, that against God the Creator," the pope says. "The true custody of creation does not have anything to do with the ideologies that consider man like an accident, like a problem to eliminate."
"God has placed man and woman and the summit of creation and has entrusted them with the earth," Francis says. "The design of the Creator is written in nature."
The "gender theory" Francis denigrated was the medically and anthropologically supported concept that gender and the roles attached to it are constructs imposed by society. It's commonly cited in defense of trans rights, since it shows gender identity and gender roles can vary despite society's expectations.
This wasn't the only time the pope rejected the "gender theory," according to NCR. In January, Francis said teaching the theory in developing countries is "ideological colonization" by wealthier nations.
The pope, then, isn't supportive of any of the thinking that allows transgender people to live their lives freely. On this front, it can't even argued he's progressed the Church — he's rejected the basic concept behind trans rights altogether.
The pope gets a pass when other leaders do not
It's hard to think of any other leader who would be called progressive while comparing modern views on gender identity to nuclear weapons and ideological colonization. Just imagine if, for example, Hillary Clinton said tomorrow that transgender people are "Herods" who want to "destroy, that plot designs of death, that disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation." It's unlikely Clinton would maintain any credibility whatsoever among her progressive base after that.
This applies to gay rights issues. Would anyone consider Clinton liberal or progressive if she said she opposes same-sex marriage rights, or said gay people should be celibate? Of course not. She would likely be labeled an anti-gay bigot.
But those are the pope's stances, yet he often gets a pass — simply because, in comparison to his predecessors, his rhetoric is nicer. That may make him slightly progressive compared to the Church, but it's far from liberal on LGBTQ issues. And if evaluated fairly, the pope's positions are still highly regressive and condemnable among anyone who cares about LGBTQ rights.