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Pope Francis may support same-sex unions, but the Indian church still has some way to go

Leaders of Christian sects in India have differing views on homosexuality

Crowds cheer as Pope Francis passes by during his meeting with the youth at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines, in 2015. Pope Francis’ comments endorsing same-sex civil unions were received by some as encouragement for an advancing struggle and condemned by others as a departure from church doctrine. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila, File) (AP)

For most of his teenage, Savio Mascarenhas believed that when he dies, he’ll end up in hell. The reason: he identified as a homosexual. And the Catholic church, of which he is a follower, considered sexual activity between same-sex couples a sin.

But Pope Francis’s remarks in a recent documentary, where he expressed his support for civil union laws for same-sex couples, helped assuage the guilt Savio has carried for years. “They [homosexual couples] are children of God and have a right to a family,” the Pope reportedly said in the recently released documentary Francesco. “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”

Savio isn't sure what led to the Pope's change of heart. “There’s always politics and religion that’ll brace such questions,” says Savio, who lives in Mumbai and runs the LGBT-rights group ‘Color+’. “But I’m just happy he’s clearer on it than before.”

The Pope’s comments are a radical departure from the views the Vatican espoused for centuries. Pope Francis has always been considered a progressive figure in popular discourse but his record on supporting homosexual relationships has been mixed.

In 2013, in a response to a question about gay men, the Pope had said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” And yet, the same year, the Vatican defrocked an Australian priest for his liberal views on homosexuality and abortion.

Such contradictions are seen in the Indian church too. This was especially evident when the Supreme Court decriminalized section 377 in 2018. Fr. Stephen Fernandes, secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, said though homosexuality was no longer a crime under the Indian Penal Code, it was still a moral one.

The Methodist church, which has over 6 lakh followers in India, is known to oppose homsexuality. Rev Dr D.H. Paul, chairman, Board of Eccumenism, told Deccan Chronicle in 2018, “Same-sex marriages are against God’s will and against God’s creation. Creation itself shows the creation of male and female. Man and women’s unity, that too within the institution of marriage, is holy.”

But there have been a few progressive voices too. Father Thomas Ninan, a priest in the Indian Orthodox Church, has been conducting sensitization workshops since 2016 to get churches be more inclusive towards members of the LGBT community. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, head of the Archdiocese of Mumbai, has long espoused that those who identify as queer needed to be welcomed by the church. In 2018, the late designer Wendell Rodricks and Ruby Almeida, part of the global LGBT-rights group Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC), launched a helpline for queer individuals and their families to keep their faith. At the time of the launch, Cardinal Oswald Gracias lent his support to the initiative.

“What also makes this news amazing is that the Pope reportedly says that ‘Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family.’” says Ruby Almeida, in a press release by the GNRC. “This is ground-breaking coming from the leader of the Catholic Church...We hope that by ‘family’, the Holy Father is not only referring to the families of origin of LGBTIQ persons, but also their own chosen families as they engage in loving and nurturing relationships together as spouses and parents.

The Catholic Church's stance on homosexuality and gay marriage hinges on more than the Pope's views, though. As Father Jacob Palakkappalli, spokesperson of Kerala Catholic Bishops Council, told Indian Express on Wednesday, "The Catholic Church hasn't diluted its stand on family life and homosexuality. The Church does not make exhortations about marriage and family life through documentaries. The Pope had taught in the past also that those in the LGBT category are children of god and they deserve special love and care. The Church is of the stand that same-sex inclinations should be differentiated from same-sex acts."

It might be some time before knows of the full context of the Pope’s remarks and if it will reflect in the church doctrine. But Savio Mascarenhas isn’t reining in his celebrations. “We’ve all gone through so much, it’s wonderful that someone accepts you for who you are,” he says.

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