To achieve equality, we must step forward — not just to the side

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The conflict over basic questions of equality and human rights was stoked a bit hotter last week with Pope Francis’ seemingly radical statement that LGBTQ people have a right to be in a family.

Pope Francis’ statement came out in the documentary “Francesco,” released on Wednesday.

“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 be made miserable over it,” the pope said. “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”

Conservatives and progressives immediately clashed, claiming, respectively, the pope’s words either were anathema to true faith and a sign of the devil; or, represent a monumental step forward for LGBTQ families.

But, if you listened closely, you may have heard a few quiet voices asking: Is this a momentous step forward? Or, is it something else?

I will say this much up front: The pope’s words are historic, but, to borrow the words of my mentor and superior, Fr. Thomas Newsom, this is more a step to the side than a step forward. Sometimes, a step to the side is the necessary precursor to a step forward — and for that, I pray.

Before I delve further, a word about civil unions, marriage, government and the church. Civil unions are the only form of joining two people — heterosexual or otherwise — in which the government should be involved, for purposes of taxes, property rights and civil law. How that is, or is not, defined as marriage should be entirely up to the individuals being joined, and their own understanding of faith or no faith.

As for churches, I leave it to the members of individual bodies of faith to define these terms for themselves. There are something like 33,000 Christian denominations and independent church bodies. I choose to belong to, and seek ordination in, one in which all the sacraments, including marriage, are practiced equally and without equivocation for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

But, let’s look objectively at the pope’s statement. It is a good move in that it affirms LGBTQ people’s right to exist and belong to the basic social unit of humanity. Huzzah. It is sad so basic a statement is cause for news; sadder that is still causes hate and schism.

Pope Francis already was facing stiff opposition from conservative Catholics, and his courage should be applauded.

But, his focus on civil unions — outside the church — runs the risk of being a diversion, a step to the side, rather than forward, in LGBTQ Catholics’ struggle to be recognized not just as humans with a right to exist, but as full and equal members of the Body of Christ.

In times like these, when we’ve been faced with a great tear between the way things have been, and the way they really ought to be, we, as humans, have always had a tendency to say “Yes, but…”

The pope says: Yes, LGBTQ Catholics are human, and have a right to be in a family … but, outside the church.

I do not want to lay too much of this at Pope Francis’ feet, because it is systemic in our culture. In and outside of our churches, the way we approach LGBTQ rights today looks too much like the old ways of “separate but equal.”

To understand the intent and meaning of “equal but separate,” you only need read Justice Henry Brown’s majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that affirmed segregation.

As Brown put it, “if one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” Substitute “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” for “race” in that statement, and you have an accurate summation of the conservative view today.

Many will say I am drawing a false equivalence. So, let’s look at a recurring statement that’s been made to me recently, by some people whom I love.

“We are Christians, but we allow gay people to (fill in the blank).”

Sounds innocuous, loving — even progressive. But, let’s add some emphasis to get at the real meaning.

“WE are Christians, BUT we ALLOW gay people to (fill in the blank).”

Now, there’s obvious separation between those who are truly Christian and those who are not, between those who have authority to allow basic rights, and those who must submit to that authority.

Now, roll that statement back to its equivalent in 1960, or heck, in some places, today.

“We are Christians, but we allow Black people to (fill in the blank).”

That sounds odious today, and it should. And if you switch “Black” to “LGBTQ,” you have an understanding of how history and our children will view our statements today.

In truth, these statements do not represent equality. They are, as with the pope’s statement, at best, a step to the side.

We only step forward when we completely surrender our old prejudices, fears and hatreds, and embrace with true and unconditional love all our brothers and sisters. And that, sadly, is very much a work in progress in this society.

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