This week the first big news came out of the Vatican synod, a gathering of bishops called together by Pope Francis to discuss the church’s teaching on the family. A preliminary report suggested that the church should take a more positive stance on homosexuality, and that gays and lesbians have “gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community”. It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of gay marriage, but it is by far the most positive wording to come out of any Vatican statement so far. So is this really a turnaround for the Catholic Church and homosexuality? And how does it fit in with attitudes across the world?
While Pope Francis has certainly struck a different line than his predecessors on the matter, people hoping for more shouldn’t get too excited. The Pope can’t completely disregard the views of many of his church, and there are still powerful Catholic groups who are opposed to any sign of conciliation. The Church still believes that marriage is between a man and a woman – and for life – and that homosexuality is not part of God’s plan. Don’t expect the Pope to start officiating at gay weddings anytime soon.
However, the main difference in the attitude we’re seeing from the Vatican is the tone. The Pope seems determined to make the church a welcoming place to people who don’t fit into their image of family life. Recently the Pope married numerous couples, including couples who had been living together before marriage. His comments over the summer show a lot about this new attitude: “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” The new Pope’s tone is one of acceptance that society and its attitudes are changing fast, and that the Church – while holding on to its beliefs about what marriage is – should accept those who come knocking on their door.
But who are the other groups still standing firm against gay rights though, and why? Is just religion? In the Western world it certainly seems that this is the case. It’s not as simple as the fact that homosexuality is traditionally seen as a sin. The issue also forces a rethink of a lot of Christian theology, clashing as it does with the idea of man and woman being created for each other. Two thousand years of theology and worldview is hard to change overnight, and simply saying that their opinion is ‘homophobic’ doesn’t go anywhere towards changing attitudes.
However, in other parts of the world it isn’t so much religion, but the whole culture that struggles with homosexuality. For example, the Middle East in general places an extremely high value on family and lineage, and has a conservative culture. In parts of South America and the Caribbean, homosexuality clashes with social expectations of masculinity and femininity. Russia is also a strongly conservative country, and homosexuality is often seen as something being brought in by the West – making it very unpopular today. Finally though, sexual orientation is a part of human sexuality that touches something deep seated in each human being. Who we have sex with and what we do with our bodies is something every single culture has strong ideas on, and when different practices become commonplace this is deeply shocking to many people.
All this considered it is impressive how much attitudes towards homosexuality has changed in the last 20 years. It was only legalised in many Western countries after the Second World War, and not even in all situations. But in 2014 ideas and opinions that were seen as normal when I was born in 1993 (the year homosexuality was legalised in Russia coincidentally) are seen as downright homophobic. Of course, there are still the ‘culture wars’, especially in the US. But gay marriage is legal across most of Western Europe, in many US states, and in other areas like South Africa and South America. In most Western European states, and in public opinion at least, gay rights are becoming more and more mainstream, and homophobia is abhorred.
I believe it’s extremely unlikely that gay marriage and other rights will still be a big issue in the West 20 years from now. With examples of healthy gay and lesbian relationships in the media and in our communities, Westerners of my generation simply have a hard time seeing why two people in love shouldn’t be allowed to get married. While religious objections remain a factor, we live in a secular society, and religious arguments cannot be used to make political decisions that apply to everyone.
However, it is harder to affect cultural change in countries outside the West. While we can apply pressure for them to change their draconian laws, cultural change always comes from within, and it is up to these countries themselves to address their own attitudes towards these issues. Telling people that their culture needs changing often leads to a hardening of stances. It’s a hard truth, but one we in the West sometimes need to accept.
When writing this I wasn’t merely trying to share my opinions of gay marriage and equal rights, as I don’t know enough for my opinion to be that interesting. Instead I was trying to look at how things have changed, and why people find this issue such a hard thing to accept. I hope I’ve managed to do this in a interesting and fair way.