Argument

Francis's Papal Bull

Why is a progressive pope allowing anti-gay bishops to preach hate?

A president struggling in the polls at home traveled to the Vatican last week. He was hoping that a photo with the wildly popular Pope Francis might boost his dismal approval ratings. But because the president had been championing historic LGBT legislation to appeal to his base, some wondered if the pope would actually use their meeting to chastise the president -- reminding him how the policies he favors are out of sync with church teachings.

Barack Obama, right? No -- the president in question was Nigeria's embattled leader, President Goodluck Jonathan.

Late last week, the media reported, analyzed, critiqued, conjectured, and speculated on every aspect of Obama's meeting with Pope Francis, including whether or not the two men would discuss same-sex marriage and other LGBT rights in the United States. But five days earlier, with little attention or fanfare, Pope Francis received Jonathan, fresh off the president signing a bill criminalizing homosexuality in Nigeria.

According to the law, enacted in January, any citizen who enters into a union with person of the same sex faces a 14-year prison sentence. Gay Nigerians who simply assemble with like-minded others could also face jail time. Jonathan is facing a tough reelection battle next year, and the law was widely seen as an effort to shore up support among conservative Nigerians. Since its enactment, journalists have documented frightening stories of violence committed against gay men.

Catholic bishops in Nigeria, in a letter to Jonathan, heralded the new law as "courageous" and "a clear indication of the ability of our great country to stand shoulders high in the protection of our Nigerian and African most valued cultures of the institution of marriage." They weren't the only religious leaders happy with a stepping-up of repression against gay Africans. In February, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a bill that threatens openly gay Ugandans with lifetime prison sentences. While Catholic leaders rejected the 2009 version of the bill, which contained an infamous death penalty provision, some bishops -- as well as Anglican and Orthodox leaders -- have been vocal in their support of the most recent measure. (Africa is the Roman Catholic Church's fastest-growing region, in terms of membership.)

In response to the developments in Nigeria and Uganda, the Vatican said nothing. The pope also said nothing publicly on the issue of gay rights during the Nigerian president's audience last week. (An official Vatican announcement said that the two men talked about "the protection of the dignity of the human person and his or her fundamental rights," but did not specify further. At least one media outlet in Nigeria reported that Jonathan "justifie[d]" his country's new law in his audience with the pope.)

Had this all happened just over a year ago, when Pope Benedict was routinely reminding the world of the Catholic Church's opposition to gay rights, it might have been unsurprising. The church's fear and rejection of LGBT people was palpable then, with few exceptions. But with the softer, gentler touch of Pope Francis, and his widely heralded reputation as a liberal reformer, the Vatican's recent silence has raised some eyebrows -- and some ire.

Violence and discrimination against gays and lesbians around the world is very real and, in places, growing. From Nigeria to Uganda to Russia, efforts to codify rampant homophobia and lend legitimacy to the mobs that torment sexual minorities have widespread backing. That some Catholic bishops support these laws seems anathema to the Gospel that they are supposed to uphold, their critics argue, in particular to the central tenets of acceptance and kindness -- a stance to which the pope seemed to lend his support in much-lauded comments last year.

Why, then, won't Pope Francis speak out more directly against political leaders like Jonathan and against his own bishops who support draconian treatment of gay people? Some say failing to do so threatens to derail his conciliatory image, hinged on engaging in dialogue with a changing world. As Bob Shine of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBT Catholics, wrote in late March, "It is time for Pope Francis to speak out clearly and forcefully against Uganda's law, and other similar anti-gay laws around the globe. He can save lives."

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The Catholic Church still teaches that sex between two men or two women is "intrinsically disordered." Yet last summer, Pope Francis captured the world's imagination when he decided to emphasize the other half of that controversial teaching: the side that says gay people must nonetheless be afforded dignity and respect. "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" the pope told a reporter on a flight to Rome from Rio de Janeiro. He even used the English word "gay" rather than opting for the more clinical term "homosexual," which is sometimes used maliciously.

Later that year, the pope lamented in an interview that the church had become bogged down by its obsession with opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.

Progressive and openly gay Catholics cheered. The Advocate, the nation's largest LGBT magazine, put the pope on its cover. Some bishops even seemed to drop their guard a bit and challenge traditional Catholics to think more broadly about the issue. The bishop of St. Petersburg, FL, Robert Lynch, wrote on his blog, "The Church needed to be kinder and gentler to those who identify themselves as gay and lesbian, be less judgmental and more welcoming." Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, meanwhile, said that "homosexuals are not criminals" and do not deserve incarceration, according to Britain's Catholic Herald.

Conservatives struck back, however, noting that Pope Francis hadn't changed any doctrine. Words were just words; formally speaking, the pope was in line with his predecessors.

But in the Catholic context, words and symbols can have enormous impact and profoundly change lives. "Francis's new tone has done immense good. Many gay and lesbian Catholics have told me that they feel welcome in their church for the first time in years, sometimes for the first time in their lives," James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at America told me. Martin also thinks that what the pope has said should make bishops around the world reconsider how they engage on gay issues. "In countries where [gays] are in fact judged, and judged harshly, one of the most important moral voices of our time is saying, 'Stop.' It's a critical step forward," he said.

Still, even among those pleased by the pope's relatively liberal approach to gay rights, there are many people left wondering why he's stopped short -- why he hasn't condemned the worst abuses against gay people. This concern even prompted a Twitter and email campaign, #PopeSpeakOut, earlier this year.

The disconnect between the pope's words and actions stems partly from the fact that Pope Francis appears hesitant to become involved with what the Vatican considers local issues, which includes national laws punishing gay people for their sexual orientation. And although counterintuitive, this hesitance actually reflects a certain liberalism about the internal dynamics of the church: Catholic progressives, used to the rigid, authoritarian rule of Rome over the past few decades, have long wanted to see the devolution of power away from the Vatican. This was the only way, they believed, that lay people -- with more access to bishops than to Rome's highest echelons -- could gain some input in the church's decision-making processes.

Pope Francis seems to have taken this concern to heart: Part of his much-celebrated reforms appears to include returning authority to local bishops. In November, in his first major written work as head of the church, the pope said, "I ... must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization."

But bishops, not a centralized Roman bureaucracy, are the men funding campaigns against same-sex marriage in the United States, and they're the ones supporting laws that imprison gays in Africa -- or do them even worse harm. Liberal Catholics, in other words, are seeing both the good and the bad of what they wished for.

Now many human rights advocates say silence from the pope, regardless of internal church issues, isn't acceptable; human dignity should trump bureaucratic reform. In October, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a letter to Pope Francis asking the church to use its influence "to protect people in sexual and gender minorities from further abuse." To achieve this, HRW said it wanted the pope to "[p]ublicly condemn violence against people in sexual and gender minorities" and support the "decriminalization of consensual, sexual relationships and support the repeal of other unjust criminal penalties for people in sexual and gender minorities."

As for whether his voice would matter, it's certainly possible for the pope -- especially this pope -- to use his global platform to drive a conversation, perhaps even sway opinion. He led a massive protest against Western military intervention in Syria last September, for instance, rallying Catholics for a worldwide day of prayer. He has showed the world that he knows how to mobilize believers.

What's more, even during the hostile climate created under Pope Benedict, there were some positive rumblings at the Vatican that show Pope Francis likely wouldn't have much to lose in speaking out against egregious violations of LGBT rights. Responding to protests against its unwillingness to back a U.N. resolution on sexual orientation, Rome said in 2008 that it would support eliminating criminal penalties for homosexuality (even while it would not support same-sex unions and some other policies). More recently, Pope Francis's personal representative to Uganda, Archbishop Michael Blume, expressed concern about Uganda's anti-gay bill and wrote that he hoped the Holy Spirit would give Museveni "wisdom" as the president considered signing it into law.

Given his own public comments ("Who am I to judge?"), Blume's words, and other signals, it's probable that Francis is against repressive, anti-gay laws. And already, in his first year as pope, he has taken an important step toward a new dynamic around LGBT issues in the church. Yet if he truly wants to move forward, he will have to build on his initial outreach and ask, publicly, that Catholic bishops and other leaders keep up. If the pope truly wants the Catholic Church to chart a course for social justice around the world, his leadership on this issue must demonstrate that his powerful institution is a genuine voice for the oppressed.

ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Worry, but Wait

American fears of Russian and Chinese aggression are growing, but they'd still rather Washington not get too involved.

Russia's annexation of Crimea and China's territorial ambitions in the East and South China Seas are a stark reminder that balance of power politics are alive and well in the 21st century, long after some pundits dismissed them as relics of a bygone era.

And while geostrategists debate whether a new Cold War is in the offing, the American public has already begun to make its own judgment. Yes, Americans' views of both Russia and China are worsening. But they see neither Moscow nor Beijing as an "enemy," nor do they have the stomach for a military -- or even economic -- confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.

In 2007, 44 percent of the American people had a favorable view of Russia and 42 percent had a positive opinion of China, according to Pew Research Center surveys. By 2013, favorability of Russia had fallen to 32 percent and favorability of China to 33 percent, according to a Pew Research Center survey at the time.

But a new Pew Research Center survey shows that trend accelerating. Americans' wariness of Russia is on the rise in the wake of developments in Crimea. Since last November, the percentage of the public viewing Russia as an adversary has risen eight percentage points (from 18 percent to 26 percent), while the share saying Russia is a serious problem has increased seven points (from 36 percent to 43 percent). And the percentage of Americans who do not think of Russia as much of a problem has fallen by almost half -- from 40 percent just five months ago to 22 percent today.

Wariness of China is also increasing. In 2009, just 19 percent of Americans saw China as an adversary. Today, it's up to 22 percent.

Much of this renewed Cold War era-style concern about Russia is a partisan affair, however. Currently, 42 percent of Republicans describe Russia as an adversary, up from 24 percent five months ago. Just 23 percent of independents and 19 percent of Democrats view Russia as an adversary, little changed from November. But increasing numbers of Democrats and independents describe Russia as at least a serious problem.

Similarly, 34 percent of Americans self-identifying as Republicans now see China as an adversary, up from 25 percent in November. Just 17 percent of Democrats say that Beijing is an adversary, however, roughly unchanged from the 18 percent that saw China in that light five months ago. And, unlike with Russia, growing numbers of Democrats and independents now say China is not much of a problem.

Despite their rising concern about Russia in particular, Americans show no inclination to intervene to stop Moscow's actions in Ukraine. About half (52 percent) of the public say it is more important for the United States not to get too involved in the situation in Ukraine, while just 35 percent say it is more important for the United States to take a firm stand against Russian actions.

And, among that portion of the public that supports a firm stand against Moscow, just 6 percent overall say military options should be considered, while 26 percent want economic and political measures to be considered.

The economic sanctions that Washington and European governments have imposed on Russia so far have Americans' support: 56 percent approve of them, according to a recent CBS News poll. But that doesn't mean they think they will be effective in deterring Moscow. Barely a third (32 percent) of those surveyed thought the sanctions will be successful.

Moreover, Americans are fairly pessimistic about the future in that part of the world. Roughly two-thirds (69 percent) say it is at least somewhat likely that the situation between Russia and Ukraine will become a more widespread conflict involving neighboring countries and other parts of Europe.

Halfway around the world, China's territorial ambitions in the East and South China Seas have yet to create a confrontation similar to that now seen in Ukraine. So the American public's willingness to get involved has yet to be tested.

But the region's tensions are palpable. A 2013 Pew Research survey found America's Asian allies very worried about Beijing's intentions. Fully 90 percent of Filipinos, 82 percent of Japanese, and 77 percent of South Koreans thought that territorial disputes between their country and China were a very big or big problem.

Rhetoric and speculation about a new Cold War may, at best, be premature and, at worst, may be inappropriate to the evolving situation with both Russia and China. But it is true that the American public is increasingly critical of both Moscow and Beijing and more and more wary of Russia. However, this does not mean, at least as demonstrated to date in the case of Ukraine, that the American public wants to do much about the actions of their former Cold War foes. Americans are not convinced economic sanctions work. And, as the 2013 Pew Research survey showed, they are war weary and disinclined to strategically engage in the world.

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images