Sister Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry, which ministers to homosexual Catholics and promotes gay rights, pose in front of St. Peter's Square after Pope Francis' weekly audience, in 2015. The prominent American Catholic gay rights group was given VIP treatment for the first time at an audience with Pope Francis, a move members saw as a sign of change in the Roman Catholic Church.


Giampiero Sposito/ Reuters

Pope Francis spoke to Congress on Thursday about inclusion and promoting the well-being of all.

"Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated." He said, "Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves."

So is Francis giving some hints about his thoughts on gay rights and even same-sex marriage?

Catholic doctrine on homosexuality is certainly not changing, says J. Lester Feder, who covers LGBT issues for BuzzFeed. But Francis isn’t so easy to read.

“I thought it was interesting yesterday in his remarks at the White House where he addressed obliquely the fight over marriage equality,” says Feder. “He started by saying that ‘American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination.’"

But then Pope Francis goes on to say, “We are concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and rights to religious liberty.”

“And that obviously is a reference to the argument that by creating marriage equality we are infringing on the rights of Christians who believe that same-sex couples should not have the right to get married,” says Feder.

That is a double-edged sword, says Feder.

“On the one hand he wants to make a gesture of inclusiveness but also leaving space for continued opposition on the question of policy to same-sex marriage. And what that ultimately means and whether that will be enough for LGBT Catholics in the United States is a very open question,” says Feder.

If people are hoping to see change in doctrine and same-sex marriage by a priest that certainly won’t be happening under Francis, says Feder.

“And probably not in my lifetime,” says Feder.

However, what is different under Francis is a shift in focus from doctrine to ministry according to Sister Jeannine Gramick, a nun who was among the guests at papal visit to the White House on Wednesday.

In the 90’s Gramick began ministering to LGBT Catholics in Philadelphia and then Washington, DC. Her efforts within this community were challenged by the Cardinal of Washington as well as with an investigation by Archbishop Ratzinger who went on to become Pope Benedict, says Feder. He recently wrote a story about Gramick for BuzzFeed.

“That stopped — the efforts to shut her down stopped when Francis became pope.”

Gramick told Feder that she interpreted this is a shift from the importance of doctrine to ministry.

Doctrine then becomes a kind of abstract philosophical question whereas the work of actually taking care of people that priests and nuns encounter in their ministry becomes much more important.

“From her perspective if that’s the case then that opens up a lot more space for LGBT people in the church. I don’t know in the US political context if that’s going to be enough for most LGBT Catholics but in the US Catholic context its certainly significant and puts [Francis] to the left of many American bishops,” says Feder.

But if you look historically and worldwide according to Feder, the Catholic world has been at the leading edge at the movement of marriage equality.

The pope’s native Argentina is a good example, says Feder: It was the first country in the Americas to establish marriage equality. Ireland, a historically very Catholic country, became the first country to vote and pass marriage equality.

“The most strong opposition to LGBT rights has been seen in the Protestant and the Muslim world, not in the Catholic world, despite the reputation of the Catholic church,” says Feder.

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