Pope Francis has become the first pontiff to endorse same-sex civil unions. Even if enormously significant, this may not be a radical break — the Roman Catholic church’s positions on homosexuality as “deviant” behaviour and marriage as a sacramental union possible only between “a man and a woman” remain unchanged. But for millions of homosexual Catholics, who the pope acknowledged “have a right to be in a family”, his remarks in a new documentary film open up a breathing space. For the church, it is a nudge to bend the arc of its practice to a more expansive and accommodating view of gay life.
Pope Francis’s tenure as pontiff has been near-revolutionary, and equally polarising. He has sought to claim divine grace for everyone, including atheists; he has offered private succour to a trans-couple and called for mercy for women who chose to have abortions; he has pitched the church into the debate over climate change, and called pollution a sin. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, too, he had advocated a legal shield for same-sex couples, even while being opposed to homosexual marriage. Sometimes, it is laws that push societies towards disruptive change; sometimes, institutions have to catch up and acknowledge shifts that have already taken place. While homosexuality, with its defiant critique of the heterosexual “norm”, unsettles all shades of conservative attitudes, the idea of the individual’s inviolable right to determine their desires is no longer possible to vilify in the modern world. The pope’s remarks are a pragmatic acceptance of that. They also illustrate how the work of tolerance can sometimes proceed without abrasive confrontation — simply acknowledging people, with all their differences, as “children of god” can open doors.
Despite a low-guilt pre-colonial history of sexual desire, India has only just about taken the first steps in this battle for acceptance. A decades-long movement culminated two years ago in a landmark Supreme Court decision that decriminalised homosexuality. There are petitions in the Delhi High Court that seek to expand the Special Marriage Act to include marriages of same-sex couples. If the courts have been hard to win over, the struggle for acceptance in religious institutions and families is going to be stiffer. For India, with a sizeable Christian population, the pope’s words will send out a much-needed message and blunt the edge of prejudice for many more. For that alone, it is immensely welcome.