* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Meeting the Pope's "prime minister" at the Vatican City provoked mixed emotions for the 50 LGBT+ advocates
Jon Miller is the founder of Open For Business and a partner at the Brunswick Group
Last week, I joined LGBT+ rights advocates to meet the man who runs the Catholic Church – not the Pope, but his “prime minister”, secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin – to discuss the institution’s role in promoting the decriminalisation of same-sex acts around the world.
It was a meeting that provoked mixed emotions. As we made our way across Rome’s St. Peter’s Square towards the Vatican entrance, I heard a tour guide describing how Bernini’s vast curved colonnaded entrance is intended to symbolise the open arms of the Catholic Church. As a gay man in a same-sex marriage who spends much of his time campaigning for LGBT+ rights, it didn’t seem this warm embrace was meant for me.
The Catholic Church has long appeared to me as a source of suffering for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. For centuries, it has condemned those who do not conform to its narrow model of sex, gender and family.
Yet like many others, I was hopeful when Pope Francis assumed office. In his first year, he famously gave an off-hand answer to a journalist’s question about gay people: “Who am I to judge?” he replied.
And so, perhaps in this spirit, the Church had granted a private audience with the Pope to around 50 LGBT+ advocates from around the world. But a few days before this was due to take place – after what the Washington Post described as “a rollercoaster week of leaks and denials” about what Pope Francis might say – the audience was cancelled.
Instead, we would meet with Cardinal Parolin.
Of course, we were disappointed. But still, this was an unprecedented meeting: the cardinal would hear from a gathering of lawyers, judges, human rights advocates and business leaders. Speaking for the International Bar Association, Leonardo Raznovich called on the Vatican to condemn the criminalisation of same-sex acts.
Gay sex is still a crime in more than 70 countries. Undoubtedly, a statement from the Vatican would strengthen the push towards decriminalisation that is taking place in many of these countries.
In Kenya, for example – a mainly Christian country where 33 percent of the population is Catholic – a clear signal from the Church would strengthen hopes that an expected ruling by the Supreme Court in May might abolish criminalisation.
As Raznovich noted, as a result of these laws, LGBT+ individuals are defined as criminals and this stigma is used to justify discrimination, harassment and even acts of violence and murder.
Cardinal Parolin listened to these points with a patient and attentive expression.
He was sitting behind a high bench and flanked by officials, like a presiding judge. A large wooden cross towered above him, and he seemed a timeless figure – the current incumbent of an office that has existed for centuries. We were assembled in a large crypt-like room, with vaulted walls that are metres thick.
In this setting, it seemed hard to imagine the possibility of change.
And yet, in his response, the cardinal seemed to open up this possibility. He spoke of “areas of common ground”, and assured us that “your concern about the dignity of the person is the concern of the Church”.
“We have to show compassion to those who suffer,” he said, emphasising that “the teaching of the Church is very clear about the refusal of all kinds of violence against the human person”.
In answer to the call for the Church to make a statement, he promised to take this to the Pope for “serious consideration”.
Perhaps there are still more “areas of common ground”. For example, the evidence shows that moving towards inclusion is associated with the ability of a nation to develop peacefully and provide meaningful livelihoods for its citizens.
And conversely, that LGBT+ discrimination goes hand-in-hand with endemic corruption and economic stagnation.
Here, surely, is common ground that can bring us all together: lawyers, activists, business leaders – and Cardinal Parolin and the rest of the Catholic Church.