Earlier this month, Pope Francis made headlines by giving the green light for Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples. It triggered a spectrum of responses ranging from praise to accusations of ‘blasphemy.’ Some termed it ‘radical,’ while others decried it as insufficiently progressive for LGBTQ+ rights. These varied responses serve as a poignant illustration of how societal change often unfolds: through piecemeal, incremental reforms that leave few sides completely happy, but which gradually push the window for change further ajar as practices become normalized.
Many prominent supporters of LGBTQ+ rights actively endorsed Pope Francis’ move. Actress Mia Farrow, for example, described it as ‘one of the most concrete steps’ to make the Catholic church more inclusive. For many of those who often experience persecution and discrimination based on their sexual orientation, the Pope’s call for their relationships not to be subject to ‘exhaustive moral analysis’ will likely be seen as a relief.
No doubt many LGBTQ+ rights supporters also hope the Pope’s verdict will open the door to further change. Specifically, they hope, it might mirror how tolerance for marriage equality evolved in the U.S. over recent decades. After all, marriage equality in the U.S. progressed from no state allowing same-sex marriage in 2004 to nationwide legality within just over a decade.
The likelihood of the Vatican following this swift trajectory on the same timeline is probably low. It’s an institution that dates back more than 2000 years, and change (generally) occurs slowly the older institutions are.
Nonetheless, the latest change is a step forward. It owes much to the tireless advocacy and activism of countless LGBTQ+ advocacy groups over many years, both inside and outside the church. Such campaigning opened a ‘window of opportunity’ for Catholic leaders to embrace if they were so willing. To that end, Pope Francis also deserves credit for actively embracing the moment for change and shifting the Vatican’s stance in new and profound ways through this new edict. It is an example, knowingly or unknowingly, of pragmatic leadership—a key trait of effective ‘policy entrepreneurship.’
Policy entrepreneurship strategically identifies opportunities ‘to get a foot in the door’ to influence others by embracing specific ideas that can lead to broader change over time. Policy entrepreneurs recognize that progress is not binary but unfolds in a murky terrain where we hope for improvement over time as key ideas take hold. The Pope’s latest edict, for instance, emerged after a 10-year journey that began with a quip he made in 2013, ‘Who am I to judge?’ when asked about an allegedly gay priest.
Policy entrepreneurs prioritize impact over ideology, recognizing that genuine change requires mutual concessions usually leaving no one entirely satisfied. This approach is demanding, as advocating for compromise may challenge tribal loyalties, especially in a highly divided world. Such loyalties often subject statements, words, and engagements to a moral purity test, carrying the charge of betrayal if one deviates from the status quo. In this instance, some may rightly accuse Pope Francis’ new edict of falling short of the standard set by those who believe in equality for all. On the other hand, others might accuse him of betraying the supposed purity of Catholic doctrine.
Yet, those championing the advancing of LGBTQ+ rights should remember that compromised settlements, though inherently frustrating, often pave the way for enabling further change. Embracing pragmatism in the short term, while counterintuitive, gradually expands the means available to achieve our long term. The endurance and embedding of progress hinge on how well the latest ‘victory on the board’ is supported, validated, and ultimately normalized within Catholic circles. Progress is not guaranteed; its realization depends on these crucial factors.
In the early 21st century, U.S. politicians, including Barack Obama, supported civil union legislation while expressing opposition to marriage equality. This calculated compromise garnered endorsements from many in the LGBTQ+ community at the time who went on to campaign for Obama’s election to the White House. They embraced the idea that some progress was better than none, believing it would create momentum for further change. Their strategic approach proved effective. Progress was achieved, even though, from a pure idealist perspective, the means appeared compromised. Civil unions, while not achieving full equality, represented an improvement over the existing status quo. Although lacking the same social recognition as marriage, being in a civil union provided legal rights and benefits similar to those of heterosexual married couples. The rest, as history has shown, is a testament to the power of the ‘foot in the door’ technique embraced by many policy entrepreneurs.
The pace of these advancements may be infuriatingly slow; rights are rights and should be recognized as such. However, for the Catholic LGBTQ+ community, these changes are potentially transformative and, over time, may pave the way for further acceptance. Regardless of whether this was Pope Francis’s intention, the baton is there to be taken up by future advocates and leaders.
This isn’t the first or the last time the Pope has aimed to improve lives through pushing the need for gains based on mutual concessions. Recently, during the UN climate conference in Dubai, Pope Francis actively urged political leaders to transcend polarized debates and embrace a ‘good politics’ based on finding compromises. Pope Francis didn’t provide specific details on how this would be implemented in practice, but it likely involves a complete phase-out of fossil fuel use. This, however, would likely be critically dependent on compensating countries that rely on fossil fuel revenues to meet their citizens’ needs. This path may not leave either side completely satisfied in the climate debate, but in the pursuit of meaningful change, it’s the only way forward beyond ideological rigidity that benefits no one.