The Pope may be late to the party, but make no mistake — he’s a star guest

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

“Go for a long hard run, take a cold shower, and avoid the occasion of sin.”

My dad’s closing words in a letter he wrote to me 40 years ago. And the first that came to me as I read this afternoon that Pope Francis has said he thinks same-sex couples should be afforded legal protection for civil unions.

There will be those who say he’s late to the party, even that he’s missed it. But make no mistake about it, tardy though his arrival maybe, he’s a star guest. What he says matters.

I was in my first year at university when I came out publicly. News travelled more slowly in those days, but small-town gossip had its means. Fearing my parents would hear from someone else, I travelled home to make my confession.

As was her wont, my mum got tearful and made it all about her. As was his, my dad avoided the issue and hardly a word was uttered between us. His letter arrived a few weeks later, dripping with all manner of hyperbole about what my life might become.

My dad was a lapsed Catholic, as cynical about religion as he was about politics. Always one for a quiet life, he made no objection when my mum’s disaffection with Rome led to us being sent to a Congregational church. About as low from high as it could get.

Even then, apart from high days and holidays, dad rarely came to church except to pick us up. And so while I wasn’t expecting a pat on the back — it was 1980 after all — I was taken aback when he resorted to borrowing the words of one of his Catholic schoolmasters.

He was also a man who spoke in riddles and I’ve never quite understood whether his response was a case of shock tactics or still waters running deep. What was not lost on me was the effect it all had on my place within our family.

One by one, my four younger siblings settled down. Three of them married, and each time I turned up to the wedding. I preferred the role of dutiful older brother to prodigal son. It was easier to rub along.

My London life, distant from theirs, was consumed by gay rights politics, not the least of which was the epic battle with Margaret Thatcher about the ‘pretended family relationships’ we inhabited.

All the while, during 10 years with my first partner, we were never once visited at our home by my parents. When he died of AIDS-related illness, neither of them came to the funeral.

My relationship with the formal institutions of the church has waxed and waned over the years. The possibility that who you are might be denounced from the pulpit is not really a crowd puller. For all that, my faith has been a haven even though, amid the circles I move in, my Catholicism has long been more controversial than my sexuality.

My family has largely moved with the times, if occasionally uneasily. And these days, much to my surprise, I’m married, and my husband’s family has too.

But as the attitudinal data keeps telling us, even in the UK, for all the immense progress of the last 30 years, change is not done yet. We know that during lockdown young LGBT people living in hostile families found themselves pushed back into the closet.

Not all of that animosity will have a religious basis and even where it has, it won’t necessarily be Catholic. The data also tells us that the Catholic laity has been on the same liberalising journey as almost everyone else, albeit at a slower pace.

Yet the Catholic hierarchy, at home and abroad, has clung onto old certainties, its protestations often rancorous. And so, coming from the very top, Pope Francis latest utterances are far from insignificant.

Commentators have been quick to point out his words have no immediate doctrinal standing. They are right. We may yet be a very long way from there.

But in a world where the forces of conservatism gather daily, the Pope’s apparently evolving position must surely be welcome.

The evidence about progress towards equality has long told us symbols matter. They don’t come much bigger than the sovereign of the Vatican City State. And for those of us who have long fought this battle on the frontline, the words themselves matter too:

“Homosexual people have a right to be in a family…They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or made miserable over it.”

A few years before my late partner died, when one of his previous lovers also succumbed to HIV, we went to collect his cat. Passing her over the threshold of his flat, his mother told me she hadn’t approved of her son’s lifestyle.

Like so many of our generation, he had fled rural life and headed for the bright lights, all but estranged from his family. She was his mother and I had to take her grief in whatever form it came. But by God, her words hurt — not just for me but for his memory.

It was those bitter experiences which helped accelerate the changes we now benefit from — not least the right to family life. To be loved within them, and to make our own — not pretended but real.

The impact of today’s news may take many years to make any formal difference. It will be met with fearsome opposition — make no mistake. As the battles in other denominations have shown, change is anything but linear.

Some will say it’s not enough, some too late. Others will shrug their shoulders at the seeming irrelevance of what the Pope says to their daily lives. I get all that. But as Samantha Power, the former US ambassador to the UN said today, “the Pope’s views, heard by the over one billion Catholics worldwide, have incredible power.”

My dad died five years ago. In later life, he came to accept who I was. Though nothing was ever said in so many words, I knew. In time, I also came to understand that all the acrimony in that letter long ago was nothing more than fear.

The Catholic church, as much as any global institution, has driven that fear — the pernicious notion that we must avoid the occasion of sin in this world to escape burning in hellfire in the next one.

Whatever happens next, today’s news brought hope. The Pope has come to the party. Cheers to that — and Amen too.

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