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Pope Francis’s gay-friendly comments don’t match the Catholic Church’s actual policies

The pope has a lot of nice rhetoric for gay people. But the Church hasn’t changed much.

Pope Francis in Greece. Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Pope Francis’s latest comments on gay people have triggered yet another round of coverage about how gay-friendly this pope is. But as welcoming as Francis’s latest comments are, they’re being graded on a weighted scale — one that still allows a lot of homophobia.

In his latest remarks, Francis said Christians and the Catholic Church should apologize to gay people and ask for forgiveness. He said, “We Christians have to apologize for so many things, not just for this [treatment of gays], but we must ask for forgiveness. … I think that the Church not only should apologize … to a gay person whom it offended, but it must also apologize to the poor as well, to the women who have been exploited, to children who have been exploited by [being forced to] work. It must apologize for having blessed so many weapons.”

This all certainly sounds nice. But as with other examples in which the media embraced Francis as unusually LGBTQ-friendly for a pope, Francis’s words are getting much, much more credit than his actions. Because as far as actions go, the Vatican is still anti-gay.

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 alleged sin of homosexuality itself.

And 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.”

Francis has also affirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage. In a visit to the Philippines in 2015, 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, alone, 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.

The pope gets a pass on gay issues when other leaders do not

Pope Francis. Andrea Bonetti/Greek Prime Minister’s Office via Getty Images

It's hard to think of any other leader who would be called progressive while holding Francis’s views. Imagine if Hillary Clinton tomorrow came out and said gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry, and that gay people should be celibate. Would anyone consider her progressive? Of course not. She would likely be labeled an anti-gay bigot.

In fact, Clinton’s past opposition to same-sex marriage frequently comes up as evidence she’s not truly progressive. Bernie Sanders supporters, for one, often point to his comparatively pro-LGBTQ record as proof that he’s more progressive than Clinton.

But the pope gets a pass on his anti-gay views, simply because, in comparison to his predecessors, his rhetoric is nicer. That may make him slightly progressive compared to some members of his church, but it's far from liberal on gay issues. And if evaluated fairly, the pope's positions are still highly regressive and condemnable among anyone who cares about gay rights.