Last week the media gave a lot of attention to Pope Francis agreeing that the Catholic Church owed an apology to gays. But his statement, while positive on its face, deflected from horrendous remarks Francis himself made in the past and which he can and should personally apologize for right now. Before diving into that, however, let's review Francis's journey on the issue of homosexuality since he became pope in 2013.
There's no question that Francis quickly helped changed the dialogue about homosexuality -- if not Catholic Church doctrine itself -- in a more positive way simply by refocusing priorities. From day one Francis shifted the public priorities of the Vatican to the issues he cares about most, like world poverty, and away from issues he seems not to care much about, like gay marriage.
Francis stayed silent as country after country in Europe and the Americas legalized marriage for gays and lesbians over the past few years, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who railed against Spain when it was out front on marriage equality in 2005; he even traveled there to speak out against it. And then came Francis's "Who am I to judge?"response to a question about a gay priest, and several other comments that indicated his emphasis would be different.
Like an artful politician, however, Francis has seemed to play to his audiences. Six months into his papacy he told a fellow Jesuit interviewer for a Jesuit journal that he is not a "right-winger" and criticized those in the church who had become "obsessed" with gay marriage and abortion. But then in January of last year it was Francis who seemed obsessed with the issue while speaking to an audience in the Philippines, a traditional Catholic country, suggesting that gay marriage threatens families.
But then, after marriage equality came to the U.S. last year, he stayed clear of addressing it directly in his speech before Congress last fall, focusing on his key issues of climate change and poverty. Days later he had the Vatican give a rare rebuke to some of the hardliners in the church in the U.S, after they appeared to ambush him into a meeting with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, which she used to promote her anti-LGBT agenda.
And now these new comments from the pope last week have reverberated after he was asked about a German cardinal's opinion that, in light of the Orlando mass shooting at the Pulse LGBT nightclub in Orlando, the church should apologize to gays.
Francis agreed that the church owed an apology to gays, and it drew headlines around the world. He repeated his "who are we to judge?" line, though was was careful to add in that the church should apologize to a lot of groups, which mitigated his statement somewhat:
I believe that the church not only should apologize to the person who is gay whom it has offended, but has to apologize to the poor, to exploited women, to children exploited for labor; it has to ask forgiveness for having blessed many weapons.
Nonetheless, it was a major statement -- enough to drive anti-LGBT forces into a frenzy. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League emphatically said "No!" when asked if he agreed with his pope that gays deserved an apology.
LGBT Catholic groups, however, were right to criticize the pope for saying nothing of church doctrine that condemns homosexuality as "intrinsically disordered" -- and pointed to the fact that young people, including LGBT people, are taught this from a young age and that teachers in Catholic schools are fired if found to be gay. Francis referred to the catechism to back his stance that gays shouldn't be discriminated against, yet it is that same catechism that condemns homosexuality -- and it needs to be re-written.
That's an immense undertaking that he likely doesn't have the will for -- if it could even be done at all in the current climate at the Vatican. Again, Francis' focus is on other laudable issues. He has an interest in neutralizing the gay issue so it doesn't distract from those other issues -- but that's different from actually doing something about changing the church's doctrine on LGBT people, which is a much larger enterprise.
One thing, however, that the pope could easily do is apologize for his own harsh and, yes, violence-inciting words about gays when he was Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina in 2010.
As the Argentine government was moving to legalize marriage for gays and lesbians, Bergoglio was quietly lobbying for civil unions instead, having spoken to at least one gay activist, realizing that the rights gays were deprived of were real and knowing that he and the church couldn't support marriage.
When that didn't work, and the government made it clear it was moving forward on marriage, Bergoglio did what the Vatican expected of him and which, like a politician, he knew he likely had to do if he were ever to have a shot at becoming pope in Benedict's Vatican: He issued an ugly, earth-scorching attack against gays, equating gay marriage and adoption by gay couples with the work of the Devil, and declared that gay marriage was a "destructive attack on God's plan."
Those kinds of words are the kind that killers of gay people take solace in. Those are the words that empower those who bash gays, and those who fire gays from their jobs. And those are the kinds of words that Francis clearly is saying the church must apologize for. If it's not those words, after all, then what exactly is Francis referring to?
So, Francis didn't have to say the "church" should apologize, and thus distance himself from an institution that, though he leads it, he likely rightly sees as difficult to change. All he had to do was say, "I apologize" for the harsh words that "I've made," in the name of the church by equating gay people with evil -- words that inspire those who would do harm to LGBT people.
Rather than wait for "the church" to make the apology for which he called -- which could take eons -- he could still make that personal apology himself right now.