What does Pope Benedict's resignation mean for LGBT people?

The Vatican announced that Pope Benedict will resign due to age and health concerns. This is the first papal resignation in 600 years. The Vatican has said that Benedict will carry out his duties until February 28, with a new pope likely to be elected around Easter, which is March 31 this year, but the timeline for the selection of a new pope is still uncertain.

As this story is still breaking, most of the news will be focused on the details of the resignation. However, news like this tends to make people wonder what sort of change a transition like this might mean in the Roman Catholic Church. LGBT people and allies – many of whom are Catholic – have a particular interest in seeing what direction the church is heading.

The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy has long been an opponent to LGBT equality. Even before Pope Benedict came on the scene, the Vatican was employing the phrase "intrinsically disordered" to refer to LGBT people. In the 2012 election, Roman Catholic bishops led the opposition to marriage equality in Minnesota, Maryland, Washington, and Maine, pouring energy and money into campaigns that ultimately ended in defeat for the anti-gay coalitions, including the bishops.

Is it likely that the cardinals will choose a pro-LGBT pope? Everything is possible, but this seems highly unlikely. The hierarchy tends to reward and promote those who have been particularly successful at opposing LGBT equality. That means that the cardinals, who elect the pope, are more likely to choose someone who carries the same anti-LGBT attitudes and has a history of LGBT oppression.

But, this transitional moment does carry with it a significant opportunity.

It has become increasingly clear that the Roman Catholic leadership has been increasingly out of step with everyday Roman Catholic people on the issue of LGBT equality. According to a 2011 Public Religion Research Institute report:

  • Nearly three-quarters of Catholics favor relationship recognition for same-sex couples, with 43% supporting marriage equality and another 31% supporting civil unions.
  • Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Catholics favor laws that would protect gay and lesbian people against discrimination in the workplace
  • 6-in-10 (60%) Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children.
  • Only about 1-in-4 (27%) Catholics who attend church services regularly say their clergy speak about the issue of gay and lesbian people, but nearly two-thirds (63%) of this group say the messages they hear are negative.
  • Compared to other religious groups, Catholics are significantly more likely to give their church poor marks for how it is handling the issue of LGBT people.
  • By a nearly 70%, Catholics overwhelmingly reject the idea that sexual orientation can be changed.
  • A majority of Catholics (56%) believe that sexual relations between two adults of the same gender is not a sin.

There are other Catholic denominations that have taken a more LGBT-inclusive stance, including the North American Old Catholic Church, which recently ordained its first transgender priest. Likewise, a variety of LGBT Catholic organizations continue to provide pastoral care for LGBT people and their allies, change the hierarchy's attitude toward LGBT people, and send an LGBT-affirming Catholic voice.

According to the blog for New Ways Ministry:

We are praying, too, for LGBT Catholics and their families and friends, whose lives were made more difficult living under Benedict’s reign both as pontiff and as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), where he served previously.  For the last three decades, Benedict has been one of the main architects of the Vatican’s policies against LGBT people. New Ways Ministry directly experienced those harsh policies several times over the years…Fortunately, we have survived the many attempts by the Vatican to end our ministry, and, thanks to the support of so many Catholics, we have emerged stronger for it.

Dignity USA released a statement to comment on Benediction resignation:

As members of the Church who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, as well as family members and allies, we call on the Cardinals and the new Pope to enter into a true dialogue with our community. We call for an end to statements that inflict harm on already marginalized people, depict us as less than fully human, and lend credence to those seeking to justify discrimination. We call on our Church not only to embrace but to champion the dignity and equality of all humans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Equally Blessed, a coalition of LGBT Catholic organizations, released the following statement:

With the pope’s impending resignation, the church has an opportunity to turn away from his oppressive policies toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, and their families and friends, and develop a new understanding of the ways in which God is at work in the lives of faithful and loving people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We pray for a pope who is willing to listen to and learn from all of God’s people. We pray for a pope who will realize that in promoting discrimination against LGBT people, the church inflicts pain on marginalized people, alienates the faithful and lends moral credibility to reactionary political movements across the globe. 

Change from the Roman Catholic Church is not likely to come from the top, but from the everyday Catholics who worship, pray, tithe, and volunteer their time and effort. As everyday Catholics continue to speak out about LGBT equality, that voice has the opportunity to overshadow the anti-gay messages that come from the hierarchy. As was demonstrated by the 2012 election, in which Catholics voted for equality, everyday people have the power to make a real difference. Now is the time to speak up for long-held values of fairness, grace, compassion, and equality in the eyes of God.