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Pope Francis compares work of U.S. priest whose ministry affirms LGBTQ people to the work of God

Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community take part in the Rome Pride parade in Rome, on June 26. (Fabio Cimaglia/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Pope Francis has sent an encouraging letter to a U.S. priest known for his ministry affirming LGBTQ Catholics, comparing his work to that of Jesus and God.

The pope’s letter comes in the wake of more oppositional moves from the Vatican — that were authorized by Francis — on the topic of gay rights. And it adds to the confusion facing many LGBT Catholics about where the pontiff stands eight years after he said, famously, “Who am I to judge?”

The Rev. James Martin, one of the country’s best-known Catholic priests for his work on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and for his advocacy for gay Catholics, on Sunday shared the June 21 letter from Pope Francis. In the letter, which was written in Spanish, Francis thanks Martin for a conference that Martin oversaw Saturday with 1,000 attendees about ministry to LGBTQ Catholics.

“I want to thank you for your pastoral zeal and your ability to be close to people, with the closeness Jesus had, and which reflects the closeness of God. . . . Thinking of your pastoral work, I see that you are continually seeking to imitate this style of God,” Francis wrote. “And I pray for your faithful, your ‘flock,’ and all those whom the Lord places in your care.”

The Vatican’s press office did not respond immediately Sunday to a message seeking to confirm the authenticity of the letter. But the Vatican’s official news organization reported on the note.

The letter amounted to an affectionate affirmation of Martin’s ministry. But it also said nothing concrete about the issues LGBT Catholics have long pressed for, including the right for unions and marriages to be blessed by the church. Francis has frustrated many of his liberal supporters by continually speaking about gay rights in welcoming terms, while also upholding — and sometimes reaffirming — official church law and teachings that call LGBT acts “disordered” and say a fluid idea of gender identity is not “based on the truths of existence.”

In that respect, the past week has been a prime example. On Tuesday, the Vatican confirmed that it had formally protested a bill under debate in the Italian Senate aimed at preventing hate and violence against LGBT people, making such offenses tantamount to hate crimes. The Vatican, in a diplomatic note sent to Italy, argued that such a measure would violate the “concordat” that guides its relationship with the Italian state — in particular, aspects related to religious freedom and freedom of expression.

In an interview several days ago with Il Messaggero, a Roman daily newspaper, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re said that the pope had approved of the unusual intervention. Re said that the Vatican wants the potential Italian law amended, not spiked. He said that the church is “not against gay people.”

“We are all children of God, and these people are loved as much as others,” Re said.

On a flight to Rome in 2018, Pope Francis said children who show “homosexual tendencies” should be treated with understanding and not be condemned or ignored. (Video: Reuters)

Several months ago, in a declaration that gay Catholics found especially disappointing, the Vatican’s doctrinal body said that Catholic priests can’t bless same-sex marriages. Though that merely reaffirmed past teaching, the decree was signed by Francis, who had previously raised hopes that he might take a softer line. In a documentary released last year, the pontiff had been quoted as advocating civil union laws.

But the Vatican decree in March said that even though LGBT relationships might have “positive elements,” that “cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing.” Bestowing a blessing on a same-sex couple’s relationship would also be an “imitation” of the nuptial blessing, the Vatican said. God, the Vatican said, “does not and cannot bless sin.”

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Martin noted in a June 16 interview with The Washington Post that he doesn’t challenge church teachings. He focuses on doing things like providing forums for Catholic clergy — who are celibate — to talk about their sexual identity, to make more familiar the faces of gay people. He has also questioned why other church teachings that are widely disagreed with, such as the ban on artificial birth control, aren’t highlighted the way the teachings on gay people are.

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

The conference Martin oversaw Saturday, aimed at people who minister to LGBTQ Catholics, included a bishop and other clergy. Martin said what makes his ministry unusual is that it’s focused on welcoming. There are very few such programs in dioceses, he said, and most are about the theological underpinnings of the church’s teaching.

The Catholic Church still promotes conversion therapy, Martin told The Post. Conversion therapy most commonly consists of psychotherapy from mental health professionals or religious counselors in an attempt to change someone’s sexual orientation or sexual identity. An increasing amount of research shows that such interventions are ineffective and harmful, and many major medical and mental health associations have condemned them.

Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a Catholic University professor and well-known psychologist on mental health issues within the church, said that it is a “mistake to overanalyze each papal statement” and that Francis’s words come in the context of Church teaching.

“I believe he is trying to maximize the church’s pastoral outreach and compassionate care and yet be faithful to its doctrine. He knows that to encourage people to violate church teaching is a false compassion,” Rossetti said.

Aurelio Mancuso, former head of Arcigay, Italy’s leading gay rights group, said that even Francis’s words alone had made a tangible difference.

“[Francis] said, regardless of catechism, tradition and theology, that these people are finally within the church,” Mancuso said. “From condemnation to reception.”

But Mancuso also worried that the changes for LGBT Catholics could be wiped out — including in the case of a conservative successor — if they aren’t crystallized by changes in teaching.

A new episode of "Sesame Street" that aired during Pride Week debuted a family with two dads. (Video: Sesame Workshop, Photo: Sesame Workshop, Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop)

Msgr. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst at the Religion News Service, said that Francis’s views and actions on the topic of homosexuality and gay rights were difficult for Americans to understand, because they don’t fit neatly into either the left-wing or right-wing camps.

“It seems like at one moment Francis is in one camp and the next moment he’s in the other camp,” Reese said. “We feel confused.”

Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.