Catholic News Agency yesterday publicized comments from Pope Francis on same-sex civil unions that the agency claimed constituted “a shift from the perspective of [the pope’s] predecessors, and from his own more circumspect positions on civil unions in the past.” The comments, taken from the new documentary Francesco, were originally spoken in Spanish and read as follows:

Las personas homosexuales tienen derecho a estar en la familia, son hijos de Dios, tienen derecho a una familia. No se puede echar de la familia a nadie, ni hacer la vida imposible por eso.Lo que tenemos que hacer es una ley de convivencia civil. Tienen derecho a estar cubiertos legalmente. Yo defendí eso.

This can be translated as follows:

Homosexuals have a right to be in the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out of the family or have a miserable life because of it [homosexuality]. We need to have a law of civil union [literally: civil coexistence]. They [homosexuals] have a right to be legally covered [i.e., protected]. I defended this.

The agency’s news report, credited to “CNA Staff,” treated this statement as a break from Francis’s previous teaching—thus setting the stage for its self-fulfilling prophecy that the comments were “likely to spark controversy among Catholics.” But this is misleading, as WPI’s Pedro Gabriel shows that the statements of Pope Francis were not original to the documentary but taken from a prior 2019 interview with the Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki. Moreover, as Josh McElwee has shown, Francis has spoken openly in favor of protecting the rights of same-sex couples through civil-union laws, and has not been “circumspect” about the issue as CNA claims.

Pope Francis makes it clear in Alazraki’s interview that when he says homosexuals have a right to a family, he does not mean approving homosexual acts in the least.  Thus, his openness to civil unions for homosexual couples in no way signals a change in Catholic moral teaching. Mike Lewis correctly states that “Francis’s words here belong entirely to the prudential order. This is not about doctrinal issues. He is proposing what he thinks are sound pastoral and societal approaches towards family members and partners who happen to be homosexual.” Nonetheless, given the interest in Francis’s comments, it is worthwhile to explore further what he is actually saying in them—and what he is not saying.

With regard to the clips provided in the documentary, the first thing we should note is what Pope Francis is not saying. He is not saying that the Church supports same-sex marriage. This is very important. The Holy Father is not saying that same-sex civil unions qualify as marriage or that they are in any way comparable to it. In fact, anyone who examines his statements elsewhere about marriage, both prior to his papacy and during his papacy, will see that he affirms in definite terms that same-sex unions are not marital in nature and in no way qualify as marriage.

Other Catholic leaders have, like Francis, noted the important distinction between homosexual civil unions and homosexual marriage. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, for example, has issued an official statement pointing out that Pope Francis made this distinction clear in his audience with some US bishops last January. And prominent canonist Edward Peters has in the past even criticized the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for not making this distinction sufficiently clear in its 2003 document on proposals for legal recognition for homosexual unions.

Likewise, despite what some headlines have claimed, Pope Francis is not saying that same-sex unions of any kind should receive a blessing or other liturgical recognition from the Catholic Church. In fact, judging by what he has said and written elsewhere on the issue, and in other magisterial statements issued during his papacy, those who expect him ever to permit blessings of same-sex unions will be disappointed.

The pre-eminent reason the Church opposed same-sex civil unions in the past was that such unions were seen as a means of changing the culture so as to render homosexual acts socially acceptable and to pave the way for legalizing same-sex marriage. That reason was repeatedly cited by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in statements it issued during John Paul II’s papacy, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) was its prefect. In the CDF’s 1992 document on legislative proposals concerning homosexual persons, and again, in a footnote to a 2003 document on proposals for same-sex civil unions, it expressed concern about “a danger that legislation which would make homosexuality a basis for entitlements could actually encourage a person with a homosexual orientation to declare his homosexuality or even to seek a partner in order to exploit the provisions of the law.”

But the cultural environment today is radically different from that of 1992 and even that of 2003. Same-sex unions are legally recognized in some fashion in countries on every continent. This means the pastoral environment has radically changed as well. Now there are people who have been in same-sex unions who have been widowed, or who are dependent upon their partner’s health insurance for medical coverage, or who are separated from their partner and in need of alimony or child support. This is not an isolated phenomenon but one that affects the lives of millions of adults and children around the world.

The Church has long recognized that marriages and other unions recognized by the state have legitimate civil effects regardless of whether such unions are recognized by the Church. For example, if a couple’s marriage is declared null by the Church, that does not at all affect how the Church views the legitimacy of their children.

In addition, the Church affirms that moral obligations may flow from civil marriages or other unions even if such unions are not recognized by the Church. For example, if a Catholic man marries outside the Church and makes no effort to have his marriage retroactively validated, his marriage does not exist in the Church’s eyes, even if it is valid according to civil law. But if that same man abandons his wife and forsakes his civil obligation to provide for her—if he is, in other words, a deadbeat—the Catholic Church considers him morally culpable for betraying his civil obligations that concern the welfare of other human persons. And that’s the case even as the Church’s moral and theological doctrine refuses to call such a union a true marriage.

It must also be said that the pope’s words about same-sex civil unions change nothing about the way the Church perceives homosexual acts on a moral or doctrinal level. In effect, Francis is simply affirming that the “danger” that concerned Ratzinger—the fear that legalization of civil unions would lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage —has in fact come to pass, and now the Church must deal with the pastoral consequences. And so the pope recognizes that, in light of those consequences, the Church must stand with same-sex couples and their dependents who are in need of legal protections for their health and well-being.

Likewise, Pope Francis’s openness to legal protection for same-sex couples is in no way a departure from Catholic moral teaching.  Pope St. John XXIII, in his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in terris, distinguished between error and the dignity of those who fall into error (no. 158). And although Vatican II recognized the right of religious freedom in the civil order, the Council “[left] untouched the traditional moral duty … toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (Dignitatis humanae § 1). Pope Francis has made it clear that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and the family” (Amoris laetitia, 251). He does, however, recognize the human dignity of homosexuals, and he believes they deserve legal protection in the civil order.

The pope’s comments in the documentary thus relate to the prudential order and do not change doctrine. Some Catholics will continue to maintain that civil unions for same-sex couples are not the best way to insure such couples’ dignity and protection.  Whether we are dealing with civil divorce or other public policies, there can be legitimate differences among Catholics as to what is the best way to uphold human rights and the common good. What is not permitted, though, is for Catholics to accuse Pope Francis, on the basis of his recently publicized comments, of departing from Catholic moral teaching on sexuality and marriage.

Image: Pope Francis greets his friend Yayo Grassi and his partner in 2015 in Washington, DC. YouTube.

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Dawn Eden Goldstein, JCL, STD, is the author of several books, including Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.'s Spiritual SponsorThe Thrill of the Chaste, and My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. She has taught at seminaries in the United States, England, and India. Currently she is writing a biography of Father Louis J. Twomey, SJ. Visit her at The Dawn Patrol.

Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D. is Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI. He is a former president (2014–2016) of the Mariological Society of America; a member of the theological commission of the International Marian Association; and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Marian Academy International.

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