Pope Francis and Civil Unions

“Franceso” is a documentary about the ministry of Pope Francis by Russian director Evgeny Afineevsky. According to Vatican News website:

“The documentary ‘Francesco’, … interweaves voices and stories from past and present. It includes exclusive interviews with Pope Francis himself, with Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, with members of the Pope’s family and many others. In it, Afineevsky highlights the challenges of our time, the urgencies that need answering and the mission of the Church in looking to those who suffer injustices.”

According to most news outlets, the documentary is all about Francis calling for laws recognizing civil unions for same-sex couples.

Catholic News Service reports that Pope Francis, in the documentary, spoke about the duty of families to respect their LGBT members, to not exclude them or kick them out of the family.  “Homosexuals have a right to be in a family,” Francis says, “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.” Some, it seems, have taken this to mean that Francis supports same-sex couples adopting children. But, the context clearly shows that he is talking about families with homosexual members and their duty to love and respect them. Francis has spoken repeatedly about the need of children to have both a mother and a father. “Every person,” Francis has said, “needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.” Denied such by same-sex couple adoptions, children are deprived of the proper development intended for them by God.

Pope Francis then shared his opinion that civil union laws should be adopted in order to protect homosexual persons legally. As an archbishop in Argentina, Francis supported civil unions for gay couples as a way to protect the legal rights of persons in homosexual relationships, and also as a compromise against the recognition of same-sex marriages. Francis, however, has consistently differentiated between civil unions and marriages. It is impossible for two people of the same sex to marry. That is revealed truth, and no pope can change that. Francis has consistently upheld this truth. In a 2017 interview with Dominique Wolton, Francis was asked about the possibility of same-sex marriages. Francis said, “Let’s call this ‘civil unions.’ We do not joke around with truth.” Francis never says a word about same-sex marriages in the “Francesco” documentary.

So, to summarize: Pope Francis, in an interview for the documentary “Francesco,” encouraged families not to abandon their homosexual members and expressed support for civil unions as a means to protect the legal rights of gay couples. This does represent a different view from his two most recent predecessors, Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This does not represent a new official teaching of the Catholic Church. Nothing of what a pope says in an interview for a documentary constitutes official Church teaching. It is Pope Francis’ personal opinion. As such, Catholics are free to agree or disagree with the position he expresses, according to how prudence and Church teaching guide them.

Many Catholics are concerned that Francis’ support for civil unions promotes support for a lifestyle that is inherently immoral, which would contradict Church teaching. But, to be precise perhaps to the point of splitting hairs, a civil union does not imply, in and of itself, a sexual relationship. In fact, other Church leaders have spoken of civil unions being entered into by siblings or other unrelated persons who, for whatever reasons, desire to form a bond for the purpose of securing legal protections.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco spoke in response to Pope Francis’ statement on civil unions:

“The Holy Father clearly 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. I would add that a civil union of this type (one which is not equated to marriage) should be as inclusive as possible, and not be restricted to two people of the same sex in a presumed sexual relationship. … There is no reason, for example, why a brother and a sister, both of whom are unmarried and support each other, should not have access to these kinds of benefits. … [Marriage 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. … 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.”

Needless to say, Catholics who dissent from Church teaching on homosexuality are exploiting Francis’ public call for civil unions to press their agenda for the Church. Secularists, as well, are claiming that this represents a new teaching of the Church. Respectfully, I sometimes wonder if Francis is aware of the impact his words have on Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Among Catholics who desire nothing more than to be faithful to Church teachings, his statements can often seem peculiarly imprecise, and it sometimes tests one’s skills to parse his words for clarity of understanding. Among Catholics and non-Catholics who desire nothing more than to revolutionize Church teaching, Francis’ words are often seen as further justification for their view that the Church’s teaching is about to embrace their new morality. It is a gift and a service to the faithful, and to the gospel, to teach clearly.

A famous (infamous?) case in point was the “Who am I to judge?” statement made by Francis early on in his pontificate. Yes, it’s true that the context in which Francis spoke was a question asked by a reporter on whether a gay man could serve faithfully as a priest. Francis answered that, if the man were committed to a life of chastity according to his vocation, “Who am I to judge?” But, context was quickly lost, or forgotten, or ignored, and Francis’ words were interpreted by many in the Church and outside the Church as tantamount approval for a homosexual lifestyle. Now, the Church does not necessarily require a certain amount of media savvy in order to be ordained a priest, or consecrated a bishop, or an archbishop, or even a pope. But, in this day and age, it doesn’t hurt, and helps a great deal, to have a measure of sophistication when talking to the press.

So, what to do? Well, there’s really not much of anything to do at this point. Francis expressed his opinion on a matter. For Catholics, it remains a matter of his personal opinion. According to how the virtue of prudence and Church teaching guide each Catholic, each Catholic is free to agree or disagree with him. We ought to be educated properly about the matter, because many of us will be asked to explain it, or be challenged by family and friends who dissent on Church teaching and attempt to use the pope’s statement as justification for their dissent. We shouldn’t let them get away with it. We need to be able to explain to those who ask what Francis said and what it means.

As a help in that effort, I offer this video by Fr Agustino Torres, CFR, a priest of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal:

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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