So, that happened. “That” is Pope Francis making what one is tempted to describe as an “unguarded” statement, on the record, reported in a newly released documentary film, Francesco, by Evgeny Afineevsky (pictured, above): “That, which we must create,” says Pope Francis, “is a civil union law,” which is to say – at the very least — a law that would allow persons to enter into a sort of official and publicly recognised union with respect to the sexes of the persons contracting with each other, which offers certain protections and provisions for visitation, attorney, medical decisions, inheritance, benefits, and a host of other things usually tied to legal marriage.
“That way, they would be covered,” Pope Francis says. “I fought for that,” he is further quoted as saying.
Truth be told, almost none of that is news.
The Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, took a strong stance against the push for same-sex marriage in his native Argentina, which nevertheless concluded with the approval of a “marriage equality” law in 2010. At the same time, then-Cardinal Bergoglio worked behind the scenes to see whether some sort of compromise might have been possible, along the lines of civil unions that would offer what he saw to be reasonable accommodation, without positive legal violence to the basic biological structure of marriage.
So, again: almost none of what is still dominating the headlines was really news.
There is, however, an iota’s difference between almost and none, and there is an iota’s difference between “we can” and “we must”. Shortly after the news broke on Wednesday afternoon, the Catholic Herald asked the Holy See Press Office whether there would be a statement. Several hours later, when dark had already fallen, came a reply: “Not this evening.”
So, while the rest of the world is parsing the Pope’s precise language, a few questions are worth considering from a broader angle. To start, how was the Vatican comms outfit not nine different kinds of ready for this? Did they not know their principal had made the remarks – and if not, why not?
It’s not as if either the documentary, or the Pope’s participation in it, or the screening date were a secret. Francis saw some clips, at least, to hear Afineevsky tell it (as he did to Deadline, who say they saw a handwritten note from Pope Francis to the filmmaker congratulating him for the “high artistic quality” of the pieces he saw). If the comms outfit were caught – again – in a state of dishabille, how did it happen?
At this point, one may draw at least the preliminary conclusion that the Press Office was taken unawares, as well as were several of the Pope’s chief lieutenants and handlers. If a whole lot of people didn’t egregiously drop the ball, then the comms meltdown that has allowed the story to go unaddressed for almost an entire news cycle is an inside job.
It’s tough to say what the fallout from this will be – depends on which way the winds blow – but in several Western countries where same-sex marriage is already the law of the land, Pope Francis’s position is at best a case of an old commander fighting the last war. In countries where civil unions are still a live issue – and the fight over marriage therefore on the horizon or just over it – the statements will take the wind out of staunch culture warriors’ sails, but it could also put the wind in the sails of moderate voices and allow them to draw a hard line before marriage and press a case for legal compromise not entirely dissimilar to the one outlined by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco – a veteran of many battles and no social liberal – who issued a statement in the wake of the furore.
“In our bishops region’s audience with Pope Francis last January during our ad limina visit,” Archbishop Cordileone explains, “[t]he Holy Father clearly differentiated between a civil arrangement which accords mutual benefits to two people, and marriage. The former, [Pope Francis] said, can in no way be equated to marriage, which remains unique.”
Archbishop Cordileone went on to say that he thinks civil unions not equated to marriage ought to be “as inclusive as possible, and not be restricted to two people of the same sex in a presumed sexual relationship.” He said he saw no reason why a brother and a sister who are both single and supporting one another in life, for example, should not have access to these kinds of benefits.
“Marriage,” Archbishop Cordileone’s statement continues, “is unique because it is the only institution that connects children to their mothers and fathers, and therefore is presumed to be a sexual relationship.” Cordileone goes on to say, “The nature of marriage, the place of sex within a virtuous life, these great teachings of the Church come to us from God, are illuminated by reason, and do not change.”
However this shakes out, there was no good reason for it to have happened at all.