THE pain that comes with loneliness and feeling isolated in a crowd exists in its own category of acute. It’s more than a forlorn yearning for the touch and presence of absent others.

Rather, it’s the sense of feeling excluded and shunned by those who see you all too clearly but would prefer not to. It’s in the curled lip; the sideways glance; the barely perceptible retreat of someone backing off: as bleak as a spurned kiss.

Catholics who are gay and retain a deep devotion to their church experience this casual suffering every day of their lives. Those who have felt driven out by vengeful sanctimony nurse this pain for years and a sense of bitter resentment comes to settle upon them.

You see it in the eyes of some clergy, forced to live and teach a lie in their ministry. Once they had thought that a life of enforced celibacy offered a refuge where they could conceal their rogue sexuality only to discover later that this would, inevitably, become a prison. 

On Thursday I remembered all of them when news began to circulate that Pope Francis had made the most significant papal intervention on human sexuality since Pope Paul VI explicitly denounced oral contraceptives in 1968 in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life).

Pope Francis said: “Homosexual people have a right to be in a family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it. What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”

His comments formed part of an interview in a documentary film, Francesco, which premiered at the Rome film festival the previous day.”

The pope has made it a defining characteristic of his papacy to reach out to gay Catholics who have previously felt condemned by the Church. While doing so he has been besieged by a well-funded and sinister wall of reactionary ultramontanes in the Church whose militancy on human sexuality is bound up with a lust for earthly power and riches. 

As far back as 2010 when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis backed civil partnerships for gay couples. This was at a time when the Vatican was doubling down on its instruction forbidding Catholics from recognising any manner of same-sex arrangement. That he was elected pope three years later was hugely significant.

Catholic tradition holds that the deliberations of a conclave to elect a new pope are overseen by the Holy Spirit. And so it follows that the views of the then archbishop, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, must have been endorsed by the Church’s highest spiritual authority.  

Nowhere has the unholy union of church and Mammon been more apparent than in the US where an entire division of leading clergy have evolved into a sort of country-club Catholicism as they seek to move in the orbit of Donald Trump. These people purport to uphold the right to life of unborn children yet seem a little less committed to that right if they’re born in the wrong sort of country or the wrong sort of colour or the wrong religion. 

I now fear for Pope Francis and hope that those tasked with his personal security will be extra vigilant in the coming months. A cursory glance at some of the scarecrow Catholic groups on social media over the last few years reveals a quite extraordinary level of malevolence towards himthis one of St Peter’s successors. His outreach to gay people and divorced Catholics as well as warnings about climate change and condemnation of the ill-treatment of migrants have created a powerful coalition of enemies inside the Vatican and beyond. They consider him to be some sort of Satanic double agent.  

What was most appealing about Francis’ endorsement of same-sex partnerships was that he didn’t state it in the context of “modernising the church”, this being the intellectually barren aspiration of those who seek easy answers and trite accommodations. This was the pope communicating something much more profound and authentically human: that gay people, so long treated with contempt and condemnation in the Catholic Church, are children of God and as deserving as anyone else of His mercy and entitled to all the rights that must come with this sovereignty of all sovereignties. 

To be reared in a certain type of Scottish Catholic household was to encounter the “othering” of those deemed to be a bit “light on their loafers”. While these attitudes prevailed across a wider spectrum of society, amongst Catholics it was reinforced by doctrine and the insistence of many clergy interpreting it in the most egregiously judgmental way. Those of us whose parents strove to be enlightened about “this sort of thing” urged us merely to be kind and to avoid discrimination. Any further discussion of the matter was out of bounds. Experiencing feelings of confusion over your sexual identity? Say three Hail Marys, pray for strength and take a wee lie down until the feelings go away.  

The hatred of gay people (and this is what it is) by some Catholics who take refuge in the Church’s teaching on the traditional concept of marriage reduces them and corrupts their own sense of humanity. I saw this happen to someone who had been very close to me but who, in the final years of their life, had fallen under the spell of a reactionary Catholic hate group who had made it their mission to “out” gay priests.

This person, a kind and generous individual, thus became obsessed with the scourge of homosexuality in the Catholic Church and in society. It also destroyed the late Keith O’Brien, the former Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh who, while describing homosexuality in the most egregiously offensive terms, was conducting inappropriate relationships with his own junior clergy. It will be instructive to observe how the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland reacts to Francis’ intervention. But I won’t hold my breath for an outbreak of ecclesiastical applause. 

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