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Opinion What the pope got right with his decree on gay marriage

Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday. (Vatican Media Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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When I moved to college a little under a decade ago and found myself hunting for a new church, I set out to find one that would accept me when I came out as gay. I thought I had found a match in the megachurch a mile off campus, whose website spoke of diversity and inclusion and radical hospitality.

A few Sundays in, I already felt at home there, until I suddenly didn’t. “Christ’s love has helped people turn away from hate, from greed,” the preacher sermonized one week, “from the delusion that they’re attracted to members of the same sex.” I didn’t return. I was stung, and it took time for me to resume my church search, afraid of being burned again.

So when Pope Francis on Monday explicitly reiterated that his church would not bless same-sex unions, I respected if not the position, at least the frankness. Queer Christians deserve to know exactly what they’re signing up for when they consider a congregation, and cloaking a church’s policy on sexuality leads only to hurt.

The pope’s pronouncement didn’t come as a particular surprise to anyone, because it wasn’t. Despite Francis’s relative gay-friendliness — he has said LGBTQ people have a right to a family, and he supports civil unions — the Catholic Church has never been anything other than clear on its centuries-old stance that same-sex relations are a sin.

Pope Francis says priests cannot bless same-sex unions, dashing hopes of gay Catholics

Lay Catholics can look at all the “liberal” pope’s tiptoeing toward equity and hope for a maybe-someday future of full inclusion, but that’s very different from a college kid hoping a church will affirm him now. Catholics, queer and straight alike, have all the doctrinal variables on sexuality, on divorce, on transubstantiation even, laid out neatly before them so they can make their calculation of whether to stay or go.

The same can’t always be said for other branches of Christianity. Many Protestant churches either choose not to advertise or even to intentionally obscure what they believe about the compatibility of their faith and homosexuality. This is particularly true of nondenominational churches, unconstrained by any central governing body with pesky rulebooks. The phenomenon is so common that organizations have sprung up to get churches on the record on the subject, so as to equip otherwise unwitting worshipers to make fully informed decisions.

This dissembling is strategic. Just as the proportion of Americans who approve of LGBTQ relationships and marriage is increasing, so, too, is the share of “nones,” the people who have no religious affiliation. Churchgoing is already stodgy and behind the times, and no part of it is more dated than retrograde teachings on sexuality.

But those teachings are hard for adherents to shake, especially when they believe eternal life hangs in the balance. So when clung-to orthodoxy is part of what’s shrinking the flock, churches may decide that the most expedient solution is to tweak their messaging to mask the underlying morals. With its centuries of baggage, the Vatican could never pull such a move, but all a new megachurch has to do is load up its “About” page with Jesus-loves-you boilerplate and nothing more.

But in the end, what does that gain? A congregation’s numbers may swell, but those numbers are soft. Eventually, a church holding to traditional teachings on sexuality will broach the matter. At that point, the queer congregants and allies lured by rosy, vague promises face a choice: They leave disillusioned, or worse, feel obligated to stay, caught in a church at odds with their identity. Neither outcome is desirable, and both could be forestalled if churches were more upfront.

Conversely, conservative worshipers also deserve to ensure their church’s policy lines up with their beliefs. The congregation I ended up joining in college was Methodist, a denomination that still calls homosexuality “incompatible” — but this individual church was affirming on the sly. I was grateful, but I imagine the longtime members who joined expecting standard-issue Methodism would have felt blindsided.

Catholicism just doesn’t indulge such ambiguity. After the lightest, most overly optimistic speculation that Francis’s past liberalizations might lead to a wholesale reconsideration of same-sex relationships, the pope took it upon himself to put those hopes to rest. It would have been more popular to let the dreams flourish, but given the heartache equivocation can cause, killing them was compassionate in its own way.

The Vatican’s non-Catholic counterparts need not adopt all the dogma the pope dispenses, but they could stand to pick up the doctrine of truth in advertising.

Read more:

Eve Tushnet: What does Pope Francis believe about same-sex love?

Drew Goins: Why Hollywood megachurches like Hillsong hide their true teachings

Will Ed Green: I’m a gay Methodist minister. The church just turned its back on me.

Eve Tushnet: It’s hard to be gay and Catholic. It doesn’t have to be.