catholic church

What Does the Pope’s Support for Civil Unions Really Mean?

Francis stirs the pot once again. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

In another utterance that will inflame Catholic traditionalists while perhaps encouraging excessive optimism for a big transformation of the Church’s doctrines on sexuality, Pope Francis expressed support for same-sex civil unions during a newly released documentary on the pontiff, as the New York Times reports:

Pope Francis, who since the beginning of his pontificate has taken a more tolerant tone toward homosexuality, appeared to break with the position of the Roman Catholic Church by supporting civil unions for same-sex couples, according to remarks Francis made in a new documentary that debuted in Rome on Wednesday.

Speaking about pastoral outreach and care for people who identified as L.G.B.T., Francis directly addresses the issue of civil unions in the film.

“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered,” Francis said amid remarks in which he otherwise reiterated his support for gay people as children of God. “I stood up for that.”

What’s unclear is how much new ground Francis is actually breaking here. Everyone appears to acknowledge that as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, he privately advocated civil unions during a fiery debate over same-sex marriage in Argentina in 2010. But Joshua J. McElwee, the National Catholic Reporter’s Vatican correspondent, argues that as Pope Francis he has clearly signaled the same position:

Francis expressed such a view in 2017 as part of an interview with the French author Dominique Wolton. Asked then about the possibility of marriage for same-sex couples, the pope replied: “Let’s call this ‘civil unions.’ We do not joke around with truth.”

The pope also spoke about civil unions in a 2014 interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, in which he acknowledged that states passing civil union laws were primarily doing so in order to provide same-sex partners legal rights.

Now some Americans who are accustomed to the idea that support for civil unions is simply a way station on the road to same-sex marriage could be tempted to read into Francis’s position a dynamism that may not be there. In all his comments on the subject, he seems to be drawing a line against marriage rights that is not simply a matter of moving cautiously, but that reflects the Church’s unique role in the institution of marriage in societies where civil and religious unions are often legally separate.

But Catholic conservatives are acutely sensitive to any papal talk that is inconsistent with the traditional teaching that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered” (to use the Church’s stilted Aristotelian language) and thus should receive no legal recognition. As in his equally controversial comments about divorced and remarried Catholics, Francis mainly seems preoccupied with extending pastoral care to believers who find themselves at odds with dogma but still want to continue to participate in what Catholics (any many other Christians) are taught is the mystical Body of Christ. That’s a very different perspective from that of traditionalists who view the breach of sexual and marital teachings as a rebellion against God that should be repelled as another front in a spiritual war of good against evil.

As the conservative National Catholic Register sternly notes, opposition to civil unions was confirmed not that long ago under Pope John Paul II via a proclamation prepared by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI:

In 2003, under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and at the direction of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith taught that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society …”

“Not even in a remote analogous sense do homosexual unions fulfill the purpose for which marriage and family deserve specific categorical recognition. On the contrary, there are good reasons for holding that such unions are harmful to the proper development of human society, especially if their impact on society were to increase,” the document said.

Time will tell if Francis is in the process of changing Catholic doctrine on this subject or is just making a different prudential judgment than his predecessors about the best way to keep the peace while protecting traditional marriages. He clearly, however, believes in stirring many pots.

What Does the Pope’s Support for Civil Unions Really Mean?