In a new documentary, Pope Francis says of gay couples: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.” As with so many papal statements, it will lead to endless speculation about Francis’s intentions. There will be debate, too, about how this fits with previous statements from the Vatican, such as a 2003 declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that “all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions.” Is Francis attacking Church teachings? Or is there some ingenious reading which would save the Pope’s remarks? For instance, he might only have been referring to certain legal advantages – the right to inherit property or visit a loved one in hospital – which could be offered to all adults, including family members and lifelong friends.
Yet these clarifications should have been made by the Pope himself, in real detail, if he wanted to raise the issue. The fact that he didn’t explain his point is in itself a blow to the coherence of Catholic witness.
For now, the simple fact is that his comments will make life harder for the faithful. For the Catholic school which doesn’t want to teach the new sexual orthodoxy; for the Catholic bakery owner asked to make a rainbow-flag cake; for the Catholic office worker called in for diversity training; for the young gay Catholic whose social circle can’t understand why he doesn’t just get over his religious hangups and start dating; for Catholic parents who are trying to bring their children up to believe the Church’s hard teachings. All of them will have to face the baffled or gleeful question, “But didn’t the Pope say…?”
Indeed, this is already happening. In the Philippines, where same-sex unions are being debated, a spokesman for the President has just declared: “With no less than the Pope supporting it, I think even the most conservative of all Catholics in Congress should no longer have a basis for objecting.”
Some of the Pope’s defenders claim that, by speaking out, he will help gay people who are disowned by their families and communities, or targeted by cruel laws. But Francis could have taken up their cause without calling for civil unions. There are traditional societies where gay people are scapegoated; the Pope could have urged those societies to respect human dignity, while reassuring them that this doesn’t mean they have to give special legal recognition to same-sex relationships. Instead, his message will be lumped in with the “ideological colonialism” by which the West tries to redefine marriage and family around the world.
The Pope has enormous influence. Catholics have a right to be alarmed when he uses it so recklessly.
This article appears in the November issue of the Catholic Herald