On Wednesday, news broke of comments made by Pope Francis which appeared to support the creation of “civil unions” for same-sex couples.
The remarks were featured in Evgeny Afineevsky’s new documentary film, Francesco, which quoted the pope as saying: “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God. 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 … I fought for that.”
The media was soon awash with comment on this supposedly epochal moment: The New York Times, for example, said the Pope’s words were “a significant break from his predecessors that staked out new ground for the church in its recognition of gay people”, whilst The Times described it as a “major shift for the Catholic Church” that will “infuriate [Pope Francis’s] conservative foes and delight his liberal fans”.
“Infuriate” and “delight” it most certainly did.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence said bluntly that the “Pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the Church about same-sex unions” and Cardinal Raymond Burke lamented that it would “generate great bewilderment and cause confusion and error among Catholic faithful”.
In contrast, Fr James Martin SJ tweeted that this “positive step in the church’s relationship with LGBT people” was of “historic” significance: “What makes Pope Francis comments supporting same-sex civil unions today so momentous? First, he is saying them as Pope, not Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Second, he is clearly supporting, not simply tolerating, civil unions. Third, he is saying it on camera, not privately. Historic”.
The Pope’s remarks, however, soon appeared historic in an altogether different sense. Though Afineevsky told multiple news outlets that he himself had conducted the interview, without specifying when, later analysis indicated that the heavily edited comments had actually been taken from a 2019 interview with the Mexican broadcaster Televisa, in which the Pope stressed that he “doesn’t mean to approve of homosexual acts, not at all.”
Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, one of the Pope’s closest communications advisors, told The Associated Press as much at the film’s premiere: “There’s nothing new because it’s a part of that interview,” he said.
Still, as the AP noted, Pope Francis’s two sentences “about the need for legal protections for civil unions apparently never aired until the documentary.”
The Washington Post said that this notable absence from the original 2019 Vatican transcript and its inclusion in the new film “raises questions about whether the Vatican had initially been uncomfortable with the remarks” just as much as it raises “questions about the filmmakers methods.”
It remains impossible to fully answer such questions, of course, without the full context of the sentence on “civil unions” remarks. After all, the Pope’s comments about a homosexual person’s “right to be in a family” turned out originally to have been a simple request that families are welcoming to children with same-sex attraction, not, as The Washington Post speculated, an encouragement to open “adoption or foster programs to same-gender couples”.
However, Professor Steven P Millies, director of The Bernardin Center at the Catholic Theological Union, wrote in The Conversation that we already have sufficient context, given that “Francis has spoken up for civil unions before … both when he mentioned civil unions in 2017 and before that in 2014. He was supportive of civil unions prior to the papacy, too, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.”
Colleen Dulle noted in America, though, that “in those previous interviews, the pope’s comments could be interpreted as merely explaining how the church might respond to the legal reality of civil unions.” And Dulle also highlighted that the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio “advocated for same-sex civil unions in an attempt to block a same-sex marriage law” which, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he called a “destructive attack on God’s plan.”
But even if his openness to civil unions was originally motivated by a defence of orthodoxy, that did not prevent NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli and many others suggesting that Pope Francis’s latest comments were “a break from traditional Catholic teaching”.
The “teaching” referenced is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons.” That 2003 document, which was written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, said that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”
Some Catholics have sought to reconcile the Pope Francis’s comments with the CDF statement by arguing that the pope must have been mistranslated and that his support for “convivencia civil” did not mean a civil “union” of any sort but rather protections for civil “coexistence”, whatever that means. However, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez of La Plata, Argentina, a theologian close to the pope, said on Facebook that “convivencia civil” was functionally equivalent to “civil union”, whilst remaining distinct from marriage: “[Pope Francis] always recognised that, without calling it ‘marriage,’ in fact there are very close unions between people of the same sex, which do not in themselves imply sexual relations, but a very intense and stable alliance … This can be contemplated in the law and is called ‘civil union’ [unión civil] or ‘law of civil coexistence’ [ley de convivencia civil], not marriage.”
But the reference here to unions which “do not in themselves imply sexual relations” is important, as it suggests something different from the homosexual civil unions criticised in the CDF document.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, California, offered further support for this distinction in his own statement on the pope’s comments. He said that, during an audience he attended with Pope Francis, the Holy Father spoke of civil unions and “differentiated between a civil arrangement which accords mutual benefits to two people, and marriage. The former, he said, can in no way be equated to marriage, which remains unique.” And Archbishop Cordileone himself voiced support for such a civil union, provided that it be “as inclusive as possible, and not be restricted to two people of the same sex in a presumed sexual relationship”.
Ryan T Anderson, after tweeting his admiration of the 2003 CDF document, said that he and his former co-authors, Professor Robert P George and Sherif Girgis, had already supported such a model of civil unions as a “real compromise” in their defence of traditional marriage. The article cited by Anderson “proposed something like ‘civil unions’ for non-married people” in which the federal government would make civil unions “available to any two adults who commit to sharing domestic responsibilities, whether or not their relationship is sexual”. This would mean that even “elderly, codependent brothers” would have the option of a civil union that could secure “hospital visitation rights and Social Security survivor benefits”.
However, if it were the case that Pope Francis was simply advancing this orthodox package of civil protections and provisions for unmarried adults who live together, questions still remain for the Vatican and especially its communications division as to how the media’s wildly differing interpretation was allowed to go completely unchecked for so long.
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