SUBSCRIBE NOW

Pope Francis's support of gay unions draw reaction from Naples to Fort Myers

Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News

Within a paragraph of an interview with a documentary maker, Pope Francis has detonated an explosion with repercussions around the religious world, both Christian and non-Christian.

In Southwest Florida, the reactions to the pontiff's words, supporting same-sex civil unions, range through pleased surprise to caution and forbearance. 

Community members carry the Rainbow flag for a flag raising ceremony during the start of the Naples Pride Festival, Saturday, June 1, 2019 at Cambier Park in Naples.

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God,” Francis says in the documentary, "Francesco." “You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Venice had yet to issue a statement on the comments by Thursday afternoon. Ave Maria University, a conservative Roman Catholic university in Southwest Florida, deferred comment.

Pope Francis pn Oct. 21, 2020, endorsed same-sex civil unions. In this 2016 file photo, he hugs Sister Carmen Sammut, a Missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa at the end of a special audience with members of the International Union of Superiors General in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Pope Francis said four years ago that he was willing to create a commission to study whether women can be deacons in the Catholic Church, signaling an openness to letting women serve in ordained ministry currently reserved to men. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool photo via AP)

"We need to see the full documentary before we can assess what this means," said Kevin Murphy, vice president of marketing and communications for the university. "So often people take a comment and run with it before they see the full context in which it was said. We want to do that first."

More:Ave Maria University settles in weeks after welcoming students back, implementing safety measures

"The way I understand it he’s not changing any doctrine. All he’s really saying every person ought to be able to stand up and be treated fairly," said Steve Filizzi, pastor of St. John the Apostle Metropolitan Community Church in Fort Myers.

Filizzi grew up "very Catholic," he said, and, in fact, once studied to be a Franciscan priest.

Under the circumstances of entering a gay relationship he left the Catholic Church for the first time. But his ultimate departure came after a 1988 Pope John Paul II encyclical on the role of women that denied them the priesthood: "I went through 12 years of Catholic education, and in my mind the nuns were always the ones pastoring us, not the priests.

"It's basically patriarchy in the church that keeps women down and keeps the LBGTQIA community down too."

Filizzi did say he felt it was a step forward for the Catholic church. Pope Francis' message, he said, would have most potential for governments in heavily Roman Catholic nations that have not recognized LGBTQIA unions for fear of offending the church:

"What he’s doing — at least in my view, anyway — is saying to governments you can do that and and we won’t be offended."

John Boettjer, a gay member of the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples, said any movement in this direction will draw battle lines inside the denomination that embraces it. He has watched as the church of his own partner, the Methodist Church, mulled a decision to split into two denominations this year over that issue. (The decision has been delayed; the church's worldwide conference, where it would be debated, has been postponed until summer 2021 because of coronavirus assembly restrictions.)

"It's going to cause friction, but it's a step in the right direction," said Boettjer, who left the Catholic church in his teens. 

Naples Pride members Callhan Soldavini, center, organizes donated goods for her organization's food pantry event, Saturday, May 16, 2020, in Naples

Naples Pride board member Callhan Soldavini said the Pope’s remarks surprised her.

“It was really unexpected news, and I think it’s going to make the Catholic Church a more welcome and inclusive place for people to feel at home and practice their faith,” she said.

More:'Today is a day we can be proud of.' Naples Pride celebrates opening of its center

Though the Pope distinguished between same-sex civil unions and marriages within the Church, Soldavini was reluctant to call it a disappointment.

“While it’s not perfect news, and there’s still some way to go, it’s really amazing news and a really good step. A big step,” she said.

She also sees Pope Francis’s remarks making their way into American politics against the backdrop of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court Nomination. Barrett, who is Catholic, served for nearly three years on the board of a private Christian school with anti-LGBTQ policies, according to the Associated Press, which included barring admission to children of same-sex parents.

“Faith should not be used as a tool to discriminate against same-sex love,” Soldavini said.

Dale Gnatek, who serves as the treasurer for Metropolitan Community Church in Fort Myers, said he still identifies as Catholic.

"I will always identify as being a Catholic because of family roots, because of education. I went to Catholic grammar school. I went to a Catholic high school. It was part of my life as a younger person and I'm not going to just throw it out the window," he said.

He has even attended Catholic services occasionally, but knowing the church's direction, "it's very hurtful," he said. His allegiance is to the Metropolitan Community Church: "No one is left out here."

"I’m very pleased Pope Francis has acknowledged the right of the LGBT community to be part of the family," Gnatek said, "with 'the family' being part of Christ's family." He also said he wants to see the entire documentary, "but that's my opinion from the snippet I've seen."

"I applaud Pope Francis. He’s clearly a progressive man and he has his ears and eyes open," he said. "We will see more from him."

Daily News features reporter Andrew Atkins contributed to this story.