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Openly Gay Catholic Priest Discusses Pope Francis' Appeal For LGBTQ Protections

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week, a documentary came out that shows Pope Francis endorsing civil unions for same-sex couples. Now, his remarks in this film do not mean a change in Catholic doctrine, but they do signify a major change in how any pope has talked about this issue. So what's this going to mean for the LGBTQ community of Catholics? I asked Father Bryan Massingale what he thought when he first heard the pope's remarks. He's an openly gay Catholic priest.

BRYAN MASSINGALE: I was actually very excited and even jubilant, I have to say. I was very, very pleased to hear the pope make this kind of endorsement of civil unions for gay and lesbian persons. The pope is grounding his call for civil recognition and protection in the right to a family. And he says that gay and lesbian persons have the right to a family and a right to a family life. And this is important in the Catholic world because we believe that the right to a family is a fundamental human right that people have by virtue of being human. And so in this call for the civil recognition and protection of gay civil unions, it's really an affirmation of the humanity of gay and lesbian persons - that he's saying that because gay and lesbian persons are human beings, that society, that the state, that governments have an obligation and a duty to protect their basic human rights.

MARTIN: Does extending the right to a civil union and acknowledging that LGBTQ people should be allowed to have a partner in their life through a civil union and a family - does that mean children?

MASSINGALE: Absolutely. Absolutely. Pope Francis first made this kind of affirmation when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires before he became pope. Now, it may seem to be a semantic difference, but I think what the pope is saying is that he is not opposed to the legal recognition of family life and the right for gay and lesbian persons to raise and have families.

MARTIN: As a gay Catholic yourself, I mean, as a man of faith, as a Catholic, is it somehow less significant, I would imagine, a civil union than being able to be married in the church?

MASSINGALE: Yes. I personally - and I know many others, gay and lesbian persons and those who are allies and who love us - would want the church to be able to one day recognize the loving commitments of LGBTQ persons in the sacrament of marriage. And, in fact, those kind of conversations are going on right now in the church. In fact, the German-speaking bishops, the bishops of Germany and Austria, are at the forefront of the kind of discussion about, how can the church extend a blessing or a recognition to same-sex committed unions? I see this as a necessary step in the evolution of the church's thinking on same-sex issues. Some people would say, well, this is, like, too little too late. But I think that we need as Catholics to step back and say the Catholic Church is a global church with a global reach. And in many places around the world, LGBTQ people have far less legal recognition and protection of their rights than they do in the United States. We have to remember that homosexuality is still criminalized in over 70 countries. And in five or six countries, it's a behavior that's punishable by death. And what the pope is doing with this kind of declaration - he's clearly putting the Catholic Church on the side of against the criminalization of behavior and in favor of protecting the human dignity of gay and lesbian persons.

MARTIN: But help me understand this because it's my understanding that the Catholic Church still considers homosexuality to be a sin, not something that should be encouraged in a lifestyle. You know, there's the idea of forgiveness. If you think of your sexual orientation as as something you need to ask forgiveness for, that's OK. But to live in "sin," quote, unquote - that that's not acceptable in the church's eyes.

MASSINGALE: He has not changed church teaching regarding behavior or conduct. He still would see that as being morally problematic. However, he goes back to his question, do we focus on behavior, or do we focus on persons? And even sinful persons still have human rights that we're all called to respect and to protect.

MARTIN: What does this change, if anything, right now for queer Catholics?

MASSINGALE: I think for queer Catholics, it's a sign of hope that the church can change. It can grow. It can evolve. I think it's also a sign of hope that especially in places where LGBTQ persons are more actively persecuted, this is a sign of hope that that kind of persecution cannot be reconciled with the Christian faith. In this country, there have been efforts to say that Catholics, Catholic institutions can't be involved or in the adoption - or allowing gay and lesbian parents to adopt children. And I think that this really gives a different lens for that kind of conversation that goes on in the Catholic Church in that we're basically saying that, no, gay and lesbian persons can, you know, have a right to a family. They can be parents. I think this calls upon Catholics in the United States to have a different approach when we talk about religious liberty and the rights of Catholic institutions and whether Catholic institutions can maintain that same-sex couples cannot be adoptive parents. So I think that's a very concrete effect that the pope's remarks will have here in the United States.

MARTIN: Father Brian Massingale - he's a theologian at Fordham University. Thank you so much for your time.

MASSINGALE: Thank you. It was a pleasure being with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS PASCHBURG'S "IF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.