THE POPE SAID WHAT? CIVIL UNIONS FOR SAME-SEX COUPLES
On 21 October, a new documentary film, Francesco, was released about the life and teachings of Pope Francis. According to the Vatican News1, the film contains numerous interviews with Pope Francis, some of his family members, Benedict XVI, and other people. The film is centred around contemporary issues and the role of the Catholic Church in reaching out to those who suffer injustice. But it was not Pope Francis’s compassion for refugees, or his diplomatic abilities in bringing religious leaders together, or even his policies to bring justice to victims of clergy abuse, that got the world talking – it was a comment he made regarding same-sex civil unions that was picked up by news agencies worldwide –which also got Christians talking.
There is, however, uncertainty regarding what the Pope said, and whether the documentary was a hoax, or not. This article examines the Pope’s statements, the official doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding same-sex unions, and the response from the Vatican.
WHAT POPE FRANCIS SAID
As shown in the documentary, the Pope said: “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it. What we have to have is a civil union law—that way they are legally covered. I supported that.”
OFFICIAL CATHOLIC CHURCH STANCE ON SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
The Catechism of the Catholic Church – a text which contains dogmas and teachings – names “homosexual acts” as “intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law,” and names “homosexual tendencies” as “objectively disordered.” 2
Catechism reference 2333 “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.”
Catechism reference 2357 “Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity (Cf. Gen 191-29; Rom 124-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10), tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered’ (CDF, Persona humana 8). They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” 3
WHAT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH DOES ALLOW
The Catholic Church, however, does make allowance for believers who are homosexual, with the Catechism stating that:
Catechism reference 2358 “The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfil God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”
Catechism reference 2359 “Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” 3
RESPONSE FROM THE VATICAN ON COMMENTS MADE BY POPE FRANCIS
On 30 October, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, wrote a letter to papal representatives around the world, saying that the two comments made by Pope Francis in the film ‘Francesco’ were taken out of context. According to the Catholic News Agency4, the clarifications explain that the pope’s comments do not pertain to Catholic doctrine regarding the nature of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, but to provisions of civil law.
According to the letter of explanation from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the comments made by Pope Francis, as seen on the documentary, was actually a combination of two other interviews from 2019, where two answers were given to two different questions. The one, on the issue of children being ostracised from their parents because of their sexual orientation, and the other on civil unions.
In a 2014 interview, the pope said: “Marriage is between a man and a woman. The secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate various situations of coexistence, moved by the demand to regulate economic aspects between people, such as ensuring health care. These are coexistence pacts of a different nature, of which I would not be able to give a list of the different forms. It is necessary to see the various cases and evaluate them in their variety.” 5 In reference to this 2014 interview, Cardinal Parolin said: “Therefore it is evident that Pope Francis has referred to certain state provisions, certainly not to the doctrine of the Church, reaffirmed numerous times over the years.”
Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, current archbishops of La Plata, Argentina, recalls what Pope Francis said, when he was still Cardinal Bergoglio, saying that “(We) 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. They know each other thoroughly, they share the same roof for many years, they take care of each other, they sacrifice for each other. Then it may happen that they prefer that in an extreme case or illness they do not consult their relatives, but that person who knows their intentions in depth. And for the same reason, they prefer that it be that person who inherits all their assets, etc. 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.” “For him, the expression ‘marriage’ has a precise meaning and only applies to a stable union between a man and a woman open to communicating life…there is a word, ‘marriage,’ that only applies to that reality. Any other similar union requires another name,” the archbishop explained.
On 24 October, The American magazine, a Jesuit publication, published the context of the Pope’s remarks on civil unions, by providing the question asked by the documentary’s director Evgeny Alazraki, and the answer given by the Pope6. Alazraki asked: “You waged a whole battle over egalitarian weddings, of couples of the same sex in Argentina. And later they say that you arrived here, they elected you pope and you appeared much more liberal than what you were in Argentina. Do you recognise yourself in this description that some people who knew you before make, and was it the grace of the Holy Spirit that gave you a boost? (laughs)” The pope responded: “The grace of the Holy Spirit certainly exists. I have always defended the doctrine. And it is curious that in the law on homosexual marriage…. It is an incongruity to speak of homosexual marriage. But what we have to have is a law of civil union (ley de convivencia civil), so they have the right to be legally covered.” The last sentence was omitted when Alazraki’s interview was broadcast in 2019.
Based on the examples given above, it can be seen that the pope does not see homosexual unions as marriage, but recognises that there are such relationships, and that is why civil unions are necessary to cover such relationships.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Within hours of the release of Francesco, messages of condemnation started appearing, calling Pope Francis a heretic and blasphemer. This, however, is nothing new to the Catholic Church, who has for decades been at the receiving end of criticism. There is, however, a very real danger for Christians (from any denomination) to automatically believe the worst in people. In this case, believing the worst of Pope Francis, and by association, the whole Catholic Church.
After being asked to clarify the pope’s statement, Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh answered his congregation: “His [the pope] comments in no way signal a departure from the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning marriage or homosexuality. It speaks, rather, of a pastoral approach to these issues.” 7 In Matthew 2:17 Jesus said: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Pope Francis has made it clear that he believes homosexuality is a sin, but that sinners need saving. Pope Francis presided over Mass in St Peter’s Basilica in 2015, to offer thanks to God together with the College of Cardinals, and the following is an extract: “There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today, it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking. The thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person, and the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. This does not mean underestimating the dangers of letting wolves into the fold, but welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the ‘outskirts’ of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: ‘Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners.”8
When we condemn, on what side of salvation do we stand?