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Regarding same-sex unions, Pope Francis must navigate a divided church

Pope Francis visiting Mozambique in September 2019. (Ben Curtis/AP)
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Pope Francis delivered a disappointment to Catholic LGBT communities Monday, with a decree reaffirming that priests should not bless same-sex unions.

The move stood in contrast to the pontiff’s past statements calling for the legalization of same-sex unions and urging inclusion — part of a shift toward an incrementally more welcoming tone toward gay people in the church.

The more conciliatory rhetoric has stopped short of doctrinal changes. Monday’s proclamation labeled same-sex unions as “illicit” and “not ordered to the Creator’s plans.”

As the pope charts the church’s course on LGBT issues, he must navigate precipitous divides. According to the Pew Research Center, in the United States, about 60 percent of Catholics supported same-sex marriage as of 2019. The level of support is even higher across much of Western Europe. In the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain and Spain, more than three-quarters of Catholics support same-sex marriage.

But in Eastern Europe — particularly in Baltic countries — a significant majority of Catholics oppose same-sex marriage. In Bosnia and Ukraine, less than 10 percent of Catholics are in favor of same-sex marriage.

Another 2019 Pew survey found a wide international split over social acceptance of homosexuality. In Argentina, where Francis was born, 80 percent of Catholics said society should be accepting of homosexuality. In Lebanon, 14 percent said so.

There are 29 countries or territories where same-sex marriage is legal, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Those places are mostly in Western Europe or the Americas, also regions where opinion and social support of the LGBT community is high.

While membership in the Catholic Church in Europe and the United States is declining, it is growing in parts of Africa and Asia — places where the pope’s sentiments of sympathy for LGBT Catholics may not be as widely welcomed as they often are among liberal Catholics in the West.

Francis “has to look at the global church. And there are certain regions in the world where if he had said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’ they would be schismatic at this point,” said Gerard J. McGlone, a senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

Those seeking changes in the church have long encountered this division. “African Catholics or Christians in the Middle East hit the roof when someone says that same-sex partnerships should be equal to marriage,” Theo Hipp, a priest based in the German city of Mannheim, told Deutsche Welle last year. German bishops have been conducting a multiyear reevaluation of the Catholic Church’s stances on practices including celibacy, women in leadership and homosexuality — much to the chagrin of the institution’s more conservative members.

When the pope traveled to Africa in 2019, his fourth visit to the continent — which has the fastest-growing Catholic population in the world — since becoming pontiff in 2013, he preached awareness of poverty, climate change and compassion for refugees. Adoring crowds welcomed him in Madagascar, Mauritius and Mozambique.

“I think Africa is where the future is really” for the Catholic Church, Nicolette Manglos-Weber, assistant professor of religion and society at Boston University’s School of Theology, told the BBC. She added that the church provides “a social institution that provides a lot of support and security in places where precarious living is very common and widespread.”

But many countries in Africa still enforce colonial-era laws that bar same-sex relations or marriage. South Africa remains the only nation on the continent where same-sex marriage is legal, after Parliament approved the practice in 2006. And in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, only 6 percent of Catholics say they are accepting of homosexuality, according to Pew.

“He’s the leader of a universal church, not just the [church of the] United States or France,” McGlone said of the pope. “So he has to take into consideration all the views, and varying understanding of sexuality.”

Still, many liberal Catholics said they felt betrayed by Monday’s remarks.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, the United States’ largest spiritual community of gay Catholics, told The Washington Post it is “hard for a lot of people to understand just how far removed the church is from human rights advances that are being made in the rest of society.”

Others were unsurprised.

“This isn’t a waffling back-and-forth from Pope Francis,” said Steve White, a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. “This is totally consistent with statements like ‘Who am I to judge?’ People who don’t see that are misunderstanding the pope.”