On Sunday, Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta revealed to the press that during a private meeting, Pope Francis—yes, that Pope Francis—strongly opposes adoption of children by gay couples. In fact, according to Scicluna, the pope was “shocked” by the very idea, encouraging Scicluna to deliver a sermon opposing the legalization of the practice in fiercely Catholic Malta. (The bishop happily obliged.) The comments sent their own ripple of shock through the press, which questioned how this seemingly liberal, Time-approved figure could espouse a viewpoint so ugly and reactionary.
But in reality, the only shocking aspect of this story is that the press picked it up. The pope, wishful thinking aside, is a conservative leader of a conservative church, fettered to a dogma that clearly rejects most tenets of the gay rights movement. Barring a theological upheaval far vaster in scale than even Vatican II, the church will never accept the moral validity of gay relationships. Any speculation to the contrary is rooted in a recklessly broad reading to two opaque statements that, at best, indicate a basic acceptance of gay people as humans—certainly not an endorsement of their fight for equal rights.
Nevertheless, it’s quite revealing to follow the ebb and flow of liberal praise for the pope as he takes, with near-perfect symmetry, one step forward and one step back. Skim through the surfeit of think pieces about Francis’ alleged liberalism, and it becomes clear that many Western liberals—some Catholic, many not—have a desire, a need, to see the church evolve on gay rights. Following so much undeniable progress, capturing the church’s approval seems, to a casual observer, like the next logical milestone. DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell might be cold in the ground, but the victory won’t feel complete for many until that towering figure of traditional “family values” defects to our side.
Why do we have this urge? Why do we still crave the approval of authority figures whom we’ll never really please? The left’s desperate thirst for the pope’s approval on gay rights is beginning to look a little pathetic. At some point, we’re going to have to cut loose from institutions like the church and accept that, while public opinion may shift rapidly, Catholic doctrine does not. Helpful as a pro-gay Catholic church may be, it’s just a nonstarter. We’re never going to win over Pope Francis—but we don’t really need him, either. His opposition to gay rights has been clear from the start, and merely perpetuates the status quo. Western liberals’ attempts to refashion him as a progressive crusader amounts to little more than a fantasy.
Still, I’m not quite convinced, as James Bloodworth recently argued, that liberals’ obsession with Francis suggests that social issues are disposable issues. The American left really, really loves gay marriage, sometimes to the detriment of other causes. Rather, I suspect that most of the pope’s liberal and gay apologists are simply reviving that old urge for acceptance, longing after the total embrace that will never really come. But gay people don’t need the church to accept us, and there’s no point in pretending that its leader has much sympathy for the gay rights fight. Accepting Pope Francis’ fundamental conservatism on social issues isn’t defeatism: It’s pragmatism. There are winnable battles left to be fought by the LGBTQ community—so why hang our hopes on a thoroughly lost cause?