VATICAN CITY—One of the most challenging jobs on the planet must surely be doing public relations for Pope Francis. The unscripted pope likes to speak his mind and doesn’t always seem to be playing by the same rule book as his clergy.
The latest in a long list of dust-ups came this week when Francis apparently gave his blessing to Francesca Pardi, a children’s book author who happens to be lesbian and who has a title on the list of banned books in the Venice school district that has sparked a feud between Venice mayor Luigi Bugnaro and the likes of Elton John.
In the wake of the fiasco in Venice, during which one of Pardi’s books was yanked from public schools, she sent a few books to the pontiff along with a letter asking for his blessing. As we have seen countless times before, the pope gave a seeingly impromptu response, bestowing on Pardi and her wife and four children an apostolic blessing. She tweeted a picture of the papal envelope addressed to her with the announcement, “The pope answered!”
A few days later, she posted on her Facebook page a lengthy clarification of the facts after the story of her blessing broke. For one, she says, the book is not in the Vatican library. “Fact one: I received a letter that was written on behalf of Pope Francis. Fact two: the Vatican has confirmed to me that my letter had been read,” she wrote. “Fact three: I was told that the gift of the books and the letter were a delicate gesture and theat they appreciated the sentiments. Fact four: it was expressed that we continue our activities in the service of the younger generation and dissemination of human and Christian values. Fact five: it is a private expression of respect for us and for our business. Fact six: Meri and I have received the apostolic blessing. These are the facts. The rest are interpretations.”
Among the books that Pardi has authored are titles such as “Piccolo Uovo” (Little Egg) about two same sex couples—one a pair of male penguins, the other female cats—that was banned from the Venice School district. Ironically, Bugnaro cited Catholic standards when he made his decision not to allow so-called gender books into the public school libraries. Bugnaro also nixed plans for a Gay Pride parade in Venice, citing public nudity as the reason for the refusal. When pressed, he said, “When we arrest tourists walking around in bikinis, no one complains.”
The pope’s blessing of the author, of course, does not mean the Vatican approves same-sex unions. On the contrary, the Vatican spokesman was quick to repeat what has become a mantra when speaking for Francis, that the pope’s actions do not change Church teachings. Papal spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini said in a statement, “The blessing of the pope at the end of the letter was directed to the person, not at any possible teachings that are not in line with the doctrine of the church on gender theory, which hasn't changed a bit as the Holy Father has repeated even recently.”
Church teachings may not have changed, but actions like the blessing of a lesbian author do have a trickle down effect. St. Mary’s Academy Catholic girls school in Portland, Oregon, recently rescinded the removal of a lesbian counselor who was fired based on long-standing Catholic school policy. They had tried to pay off the counselor, Lauren Brown, offering her a year’s salary for her silence on the matter. After she spoke out, the school changed its policy.
“Effective immediately, St. Mary's has added sexual orientation to its equal employment opportunity policy,” the academy’s president, Christina Friedhoff, said in a statement. “St. Mary's is a diverse community that welcomes and includes gay and lesbian students, faculty, alumnae, parents and friends, including those that are married. We are proud of our work preparing the next generation of women leaders for service and leadership. We are still deeply committed to our Catholic identity."
Just what that Catholic identity means will be on display in September when Francis makes a stop in Philadelphia at the Catholic Church's World Meeting of Families where the only openly gay speaker on the agenda so far is a celibate gay Catholic professor, who will appear with his mother who will talk about acceptance within the family. The rest will be cookie-cutter Catholic family types with the traditional seal of approval, although a number of side events outside the stadium promise to challenge the Church on what a real Catholic family looks like.
Defining Catholic identity in the LGBT context will also be on the top of the agenda of a major synod on the family this October, which will put on the table all of the groundwork from last year’s controversial synod during which Church leaders expressed a new approach to homosexual Catholics.
The synod last year did not have the mandate to recommend changes in Church teachings, but this year could be different, and Vatican experts predict a showdown between ultra-conservative Catholics and the more liberal Francis followers.
Several petitions are already underway ahead of the church meeting, including Filial Appealwhich has more than half a million signatures so far. The petition asks signers to, “Let Pope Francis know you would like him to reaffirm categorically the Catholic teaching that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics cannot receive Holy Communion and that homosexual unions are contrary to Divine and natural law.”
Francis, of course, will do things his way when it comes to how the Church moves forward on the issue of same-sex unions. The endorsement of a book by a lesbian author shouldn’t be seen as a sign of what’s to come, but, then again, it can’t be ignored.