VATICAN CITY — A leader in the Roman Catholic Church’s effort to reach out to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics revealed on Sunday that Pope Francis had sent him a deeply encouraging note, capping an especially disorienting week on the Vatican’s attitude toward gay rights.
On Tuesday, the Vatican confirmed that it had tried to influence the affairs of the Italian state by expressing grave concerns about legislation currently in Parliament that increases protections for L.G.B.T.Q. people. And days later, the Vatican’s second in command insisted the church had nothing against gay rights, but was protecting itself from leaving the church’s core beliefs open to criminal charges of discrimination.
Nearly eight years after Pope Francis famously responded, “Who am I to judge?” on the issue of gay Catholics, it has become increasingly difficult to discern where he stands on the issue. A growing dissonance has developed between his inclusive language and the church’s actions.
The result is confusion and frustration among some of the pope’s liberal supporters who wonder whether the 84-year-old Argentine remains committed to a more tolerant church and is simply struggling to grasp the rapidly shifting contours of a difficult issue, or is really a social conservative trying to please everyone.
What is clear is that the new note will serve as fresh fodder in a battle within the church between frustrated progressives who hope the pope’s inclusive message will finally lead to change and wary conservatives, who are hoping the church will maintain its traditions. The Vatican’s own news service later reported that the pope had sent the letter.
In the handwritten letter dated June 21 and made public on Sunday, Francis praised and thanked the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit and the author of a book about reaching out to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.
“I see that you are continually seeking to imitate this style of God,” the pope wrote. “You are a priest for all men and women, just as God is a Father for all men and women. I pray for you to continue in this way, being close, compassionate and with great tenderness.”
Those words will almost certainly give succor to Francis’ liberal supporters, many of whom were deeply disheartened by a March response by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s top doctrinal office, to an inquiry about whether Catholic clergy have the authority to bless gay unions.
“Negative,” was the answer, which Francis approved.
Two people who support gay rights and are close to the pope say he told them that he relented under pressure from the congregation, a decision he regretted and hoped to rectify. The Vatican did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the accounts.
But Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, whom Francis fired from his position as the chief doctrinal watchdog in 2017, said that idea was absurd.
“The pope is the pope,” he said, adding that Francis was clearly in charge on such matters.
Cardinal Müller and other prelates say that Francis, on a personal level, simply does not like to hurt people’s feelings.
“He wants to be pastoral and he wants to be close to the people. It’s his specialty,” Cardinal Müller said. “It’s easier to be everybody’s darling than to say the truth,” he added. “He doesn’t like direct confrontation.”
Father Martin, who is often attacked by church conservatives, made the letter public after revealing it at a virtual conference for pastors and laypeople who administer to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.
In the letter, Francis said the Jesuit priest echoed Jesus in that his teaching was “open to each and everyone.” He concluded with a promise to pray for Father Martin’s “flock.”
But that flock has been led this way and that by the pope’s mixed signals over the years.
Francis stunned the faithful and a secular audience more accustomed to scolding about homosexuality and gay marriage when asked by reporters about a priest who was said to be gay, he responded, “Who am I to judge?”
His landmark 2016 document on family — titled “The Joy of Love” — rejected same-sex marriage but called on priests to be welcoming to people in nontraditional relationships, like gay people.
More recently, Francis expressed support for same-sex civil unions. His comments did not change church doctrine but amounted to a significant break from his predecessors.
Francis had made the remarks in a 2019 interview with the Mexican broadcaster Televisa, but the Vatican censored the report, and the footage emerged only in an October 2020 documentary.
For liberals, all of that seemed to be building momentum to real progress on L.G.B.T.Q. people in the church, which made the Vatican’s March rejection of the blessing of gay unions so much harsher.
Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean sexual abuse survivor and gay person whom the pope befriended, wrote an opinion article in a Chilean newspaper that criticized the doctrinal watchdog’s rejection of blessings as insulting to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.
The church’s doctrinal office is led by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who was handpicked by the pope and is seen as in lock step with him.
In an explanatory note, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that while welcoming gay people, who have a right to be blessed, the church will not bless same-sex unions because God “does not and cannot bless sin.” Blessing a same-sex union, it added, could give the impression of putting it on the same level as marriage.
“This would be erroneous and misleading,” the note said.
Vatican officials with knowledge of the document said that the pope did not at any time oppose the decision, and that he was absolutely clear on questions of church doctrine.
The decision prompted widespread disappointment, even disgust, among gay Catholics and their advocates.
Liberal Catholics were disappointed again this past week when the Vatican confirmed that the Holy See’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, had hand delivered a letter to the Italian ambassador to the Holy See expressing reservations about the bill that would add L.G.B.T. provisions to an existing law that makes discrimination, violence or incitement based on race or religion a crime punishable by up to four years in prison.
The church intervened early to change the bill because it feared the law might legally oblige it to conduct same-sex marriages or teach more liberal ideas about gender in Catholic schools, according to an official inside the church.
Alessandro Zan, the bill’s sponsor, said such concerns were outlandish and not reflected in the legislation.
But the pope clearly approved the intervention, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re told Rome’s Il Messaggero newspaper on Thursday.
The reaction was intense and angry from Italians who accused the Vatican of impinging on the state’s democratic process and from frustrated and confused gay Catholics who again saw the pope, despite everything he had said, as acting against them.
In an apparent effort at damage control, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state and the second highest-ranking official after the pope, released a statement on Thursday.
He said that the Vatican was not seeking to block the legislation but worried that the vague draft language, and the enormous latitude of Italian judges, could lead to criminal discrimination charges for basic church practices. He insisted that hostility toward gay people did not motivate the Vatican opposition.
“We oppose any behavior or gesture of intolerance or hate toward people because of their sexual orientation,” he said.
Liberal supporters of Francis argue that letters like the one revealed by Father Martin on Sunday give them space to push ahead in their outreach. But Cardinal Müller said nothing of substance had changed since he left, and if anything, Francis had become stronger in his defense of the church’s core beliefs.
“The last signs were a little bit significant,” he said.