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Is Pope Francis Secretly Pro-Gay?

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So there I was a few weeks ago, making an argument for why we might expect the hypothetical new pope to be even more anti-gay than the old one. Now that there actually is a new pope, that would seem to have turned out to be true, at least on the surface, given his public decrees. Pope Francis, as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has made statements that seem even more off-the-rails than Pope Benedict's most virulently anti-gay remarks: In 2010 he equated gay people, gay marriage and adoption by gay couples with the devil, which was enough to have Argentina's president call his statements "medieval."

But, although I wouldn't wager big money on it, I'm thinking it's quite possible that we won't hear that kind of rhetoric from him again.

That's because Bergoglio actually only made those ugly public comments after he couldn't cut a private deal to have Argentina's government offer gay couples civil unions rather than marriage. Now, could someone who really believes that gay marriage is satanic believe that civil unions are perfectly fine? It is true that in Argentina, civil unions, which several localities had already offered before 2010, didn't confer adoption rights. The government's marriage equality law, which ultimately passed, allowed gays to adopt children, and without the three-year waiting period to which straight couples under 30 must adhere. So there was a substantial difference between civil unions and marriage in Argentina, particularly with regard to child rearing, an issue that the church claims is a reason that it opposes gay marriage.

Still, even with that difference, it's downright shocking to read that Bergoglio was quietly pushing for civil unions and was overruled in a heated meeting of bishops just prior to the passage of Argentina's marriage equality law. The Catholic Church just doesn't cut deals when it comes to doctrine, and Pope Benedict never wavered either in public statements or in practice, moving to inhibit pro-gay forces in the church, including gay seminarians and priests, whom the church scapegoated in the sex abuse scandal.

People who publicly support civil unions often privately have no problem with gay marriage and sometimes publicly change their minds over time. In fact, in the U.S., the passage of civil unions and domestic partnerships is often a stepping stone to the passage marriage equality, as was the case in Washington and Connecticut, and may soon be in Illinois. It's for that reason that those opposed to gay marriage, like Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage, are most often opposed to civil unions as well.

Then there are the statements that Bergoglio made to Marcelo Márquez, a prominent gay rights activist in Argentina. According to The New York Times:

"He listened to my views with a great deal of respect," said Marcelo Márquez, a gay rights leader and theologian who wrote a tough letter to Cardinal Bergoglio and, to his surprise, received a call from him less than an hour after it was delivered. "He told me that homosexuals need to have recognized rights and that he supported civil unions, but not same-sex marriage." Mr. Márquez said he went on to meet twice with Cardinal Bergoglio, telling him of his plan to marry his partner and discussing theology. The man who would become pope gave him a copy of his biography, "The Jesuit."

First off, can we even imagine Pope Benedict, even as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, corresponding with a gay rights activist, let alone answering his letter, by phone, within an hour, and getting together to chat? Nevertheless, it's been suggested that Bergoglio's action might have been an act of pragmatism rather than one of support for gay rights. But does that really wash? The church had nothing to gain by backing civil unions over gay marriage in Argentina. Polls showed that over 70 percent of the population supported marriage equality, so it would only be a matter of time before it was approved, even if civil unions came first. And by backing civil unions, the church would be making an extraordinary concession: recognizing that gay people are discriminated against as a class and should be protected by laws written specifically for them. The only conclusion we can come to is that Bergoglio, as Marquez told The New York Times, believed that gays needed to have rights.

Why, then, did Bergoglio rail against gays in such a bigoted way after he was unsuccessful in getting support for civil unions? Because one doesn't become pope by doing otherwise. The country was about to pass the marriage equality bill, and Bergoglio was publicly showing the Vatican and the world that he'd go to the mat, organizing marches and railing against gays.

This brings me back to Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who was the highest-ranking cleric in Britain until he stepped down last month after priests came forward with allegations that he had made unwanted sexual advances on them. O'Brien admitted that he had in fact engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior, but there he was just months before, railing against gays and gay marriage, calling homosexuality a "grotesque subversion." Britain, like Argentina, was about to pass a marriage equality law (expected to be finalized this summer), and the Vatican expected O'Brien to publicly condemn it in the strongest terms. In years past O'Brien had been considered a liberal, or at least a public voice of tolerance (and, obviously, he may be privately gay himself), but after the marriage equality debate began in Britain, the only way he could enhance his career and move up was by condemning homosexuality vociferously, no matter what he truly believed.

All of that makes me think that Bergoglio, now that he's Pope Francis and the boss, may surprise us. It's too much to expect church doctrine on homosexuality to change anytime soon (that's something that involves various factions within the Vatican), but the Vatican is not a democracy, and if Francis privately supports some rights for gays, then one thing he can do right now, on his own, is simply stop publicly attacking gays. We'll know if that's the case in short order.