Brandon and Francis

BY LUC SELS, GERARD GOVERS, TINE BAELMANS, PIET DESMET, HILDE FEYS, PETER LIEVENS, REINE MEYLAERTS, BART RAYMAEKERS, AND CHRIS VAN GEET. With its statements about homosexuality, the Vatican encourages exclusion. KU Leuven wishes to be an inclusive, catholic university.

This opinion piece by Rector Luc Sels and Vice Rectors Gerard Govers, Tine Baelmans, Piet Desmet, Hilde Feys, Peter Lievens, Reine Meylaerts, Bart Raymaekers, and Chris Van Geet was published in Belgian newspaper De Standaard on 18 March 2021.
From left to right: Gerard Govers, Reine Meylaerts, Tine Baelmans, Chris Van Geet, Peter Lievens, Luc Sels, Piet Desmet, Bart Raymaekers, Hilde Feys

We may not have known Brandon Boulware, but he won’t be easily forgotten. This week, he addressed the parliament in the conservative state of Missouri, where a resolution is on the table to prevent transgender boys participating in girls’ sports. Brandon spoke about his transgender daughter. How, for years, he raised her as a boy, including the short hair, boys’ clothes and participation in the boy scouts. He didn’t understand it, the fact of being different. He repeats this many times during his short testimony:
I did not get it.

One day, his daughter emerged wearing one of her sister’s old dresses. She asked if she could go and play with the children in the neighbourhood. The answer was no. She asked him if it would be allowed if she first put on boys’ clothes. At that moment it dawned on Brandon: he understood it. For years, Brandon had denied the very heart of his daughter, not wishing to see the girl before him. Now, his daughter can be a proper woman. From then on, everything changed and for the better: his daughter, who used to be a child without laughter (his words), is now her happy self. She can live her life as she chooses.

The Vatican does not (yet) get it

In the news this week, this touching testimony almost coincided with the announcement of the Vatican’s views on homosexuality and gay marriage. No, there is no real connection. It was more the contrast between Brandon’s insights and Francis’ lack of them that struck us: how one pleads for inclusion while the other encourages exclusion.

In the past, Pope Francis has shown a certain openness towards LGBs. This openness has probably not changed fundamentally. However, he is clearly struggling to put it into practice. Homosexuality remains an ‘incongruence’ for the Vatican. Even the blessing of a homosexual couple’s mutual promise remains impossible.  For the Vatican, homosexuality must somehow remain differentiated from ‘normal’ heterosexuality.

These views are a disappointment to many people in the Western Church. Above all, they are a brutal slap in the face for all LGBs and those promoting a more inclusive society. Yet it goes deeper than that. The Vatican is (still) unable to handle or respect human diversity. That’s the difference with Brandon. The Vatican clearly doesn’t know what to do about it, about different orientation: they don’t (yet) understand it.

Does the Vatican actually realise the destructive power of the message they are sending? Some world leaders will certainly use such opinions to justify homophobia, repression and crimes against LGBs. But also to label any others who deviate from the norm as abnormal, ‘incongruent’ or inferior. In this way, an opinion becomes a mechanism for exclusion and, as such, deprives groups of their chance to take proper part in society.

Catholic University of Leuven

KU Leuven wishes to be an inclusive community which embraces precious differences and commonalities. This is emphasised in our Pact for Respect that ends rather lyrically with Een mensheid zonder kaf, alleen maar koren. Dat zal straf zijn. Dat zal àf zijn”. (The human race with no chaff, just corn. That would be great. That would be it.) Yes, we still have a way to go at KU Leuven, but our university is certainly on the right path. With some ups and downs along the way, of course, but heading for a clear goal.

From its Christian perspective on humans and the world, KU Leuven strives to be a place for open discussion of social, philosophical, and ethical matters, and a critical centre of reflection in and for the Catholic community. We aim to be inclusive and in this perspective also hold a mirror before the Church. That is a task we have set ourselves. It is clearly not complete.

The Vatican is holding on to the traditional views of natural law against which Leuven’s personalism has fought for decades. In the ethic of natural science, a marriage can only be blessed if it embeds an openness to children. The personalistic ethicists in Leuven have always shown strong opposition to this. It is a sad conclusion that such resistance remains so essential, even in 2021.

We can only build an inclusive society if every person is given proper consideration. Leading institutions must take the reins. That includes the Church. The Vatican cannot keep hiding behind traditions or rituals. It is time to look society straight in the eye and stand up for equal treatment for all.