Today, Catholic social media unleashed a fury of reactions to the revelation that Pope Francis had indicated support for the idea of same-sex civil unions in a clip from “Francesco,” an upcoming feature-length documentary by filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky. 

It’s hard to even know where to begin my response, the reactions have ranged everywhere from a US diocesan bishop stating that the pope’s statement “clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the Church about same-sex unions,” to a post on the Archdiocese of New York’s official website by a high-ranking diocesan official saying, “the Holy Father has plainly erred,” to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who in his latest statement says of the pope, “He who ought to be guiding the Barque of Peter has chosen to side with the Enemy, in order to sink it.” 

From the left, and especially in the secular media, many seem to be treating the pope’s words as an epochal shift in the Church’s teachings. While Pope Francis’s statements didn’t mention same-sex marriage or sexuality, they have been construed as some kind of earthquake in Church doctrine. For example, as reporter Edward Pentin displayed on Twitter, British tabloids and other newspapers are running with this.

What I’m going to try to do here is clarify what actually happened and how to properly understand it. 

First, I want to be straightforward about the level of importance of these statements, with regard to doctrine and how they relate to Church teaching. Let’s be clear about this (whether you agree with them or not): the hoopla is over two sentences spoken by Pope Francis in an interview. They are not official magisterial teachings, nor do they represent official changes in doctrine or discipline. Others have pointed out that we don’t have the full context, but (at least in my opinion) we can fairly easily glean Francis’s meaning based on his previous statements on these topics.

Second, 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. Clearly, his thinking represents a shift in approach from that of the Church in the past (many have drawn attention to a 2003 CDF document on the question), but that is nothing new for the Catholic Church. The Church approaches plenty of people and groups differently than it did in prior centuries: women, non-Catholics, non-Christians, prisoners, the disabled, the divorced, and many others. Many traditionalists don’t like those changes, and usually they are very unhappy about any changes Pope Francis makes.   

That said, let’s take a look at what Pope Francis actually says. The first of the two statements that set off the firestorm was, “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.” The second statement was, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”

It is difficult to imagine that the first of the two statements—that LGBT people “have a right to be part of a family”—would be all that controversial, except to perhaps the most extreme and least pastoral of today’s Catholics. For example, this passage brings to mind Cardinal Raymond Burke’s notorious interview in October 2014 in LifeSite, where he asserted that parents or grandparents should not invite LGBT relatives who are in relationships to family holidays, so as “not to scandalize their children or grandchildren.” He stated, “We wouldn’t expose our children to that relationship, to the direct experience of it … in the context of a family member who not only suffers from same-sex attraction, but who has chosen to live out that attraction, to act upon it.”

But anyone who is familiar with the message of Pope Francis knows by now that Cardinal Burke’s approach to pastoral accompaniment (if that’s what you want to call it) is directly antithetical to that of the pope. This is something Francis addressed directly on the flight back to Rome from the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in August 2018. Regarding how parents should regard their LGBT children, he said,

“To ignore a son or daughter with a homosexual tendency is not good parenthood.  You are my son, you are my daughter, just as you are.  I am your father or your mother, let’s talk about this.  And if you, as a father or mother, can’t deal with this on your own, ask for help, but always in dialogue, always in dialogue.  Because that son and daughter has a right to family, and their family is this family, just as it is.  Do not throw them out of family.”

We have a right to a family. Francis is trying to teach us that shunning our children is not the Christian way. As a general principle, as parents our doors and our hearts should always be open for our children, even if they are different than we’d like them to be. Our Father in heaven is our model for this; he loves us as we are—unconditionally. He forgives us our trespasses, he welcomes us with open arms when we ask him for forgiveness, and he remains present to us even when we try to run from him.

Once again, the issue of how we should treat family members who are not perfectly living out the Catholic faith falls under what is frequently described as a “prudential” matter, not a doctrinal question. Both Cardinal Burke’s approach and that of Francis are responses to types of situations that have challenged families since the beginning of humanity. But which approach is more loving? Which models the forgiveness and mercy and ever-present love of God the Father? Which approach most resembles that of Jesus Christ, who ate with tax collectors and prostitutes?

Regarding the second sentence at the center of the controversy—as Joshua McElwee wrote in the National Catholic Reporter earlier today—Pope Francis has shown an openness to civil unions both before he was elected pope and several times during his papacy.

In The Great Reformer, his 2015 biography of Pope Francis, Austen Ivereigh wrote about then-Cardinal Bergoglio’s position in favor of civil unions (but rejection of same-sex marriage):

“Bergoglio knew many gay people and had spiritually accompanied a number of them. He knew their stories of rejection by their families and what it was like to live in fear of being singled out and beaten up. He told a Catholic gay activist, a former theology professor named Marcelo Márquez, that he favored gay rights as well as legal recognition for civil unions, which gay couples could also access. But he was utterly opposed to any attempt to redefine marriage in law. ‘He wanted to defend marriage but without wounding anybody’s dignity or reinforcing their exclusion,’ says a close collaborator of the cardinal’s. ‘He favored the greatest possible legal inclusion of gay people and their human rights expressed in law, but would never compromise the uniqueness of marriage as being between a man and a woman for the good of children’”  (p. 312).

For Francis, there is a clear distinction between treating someone with dignity (or, dare I say, with fraternal love), and embracing an idea that contradicts Catholic doctrine. The types of rights that accompany civil unions (things such as health insurance, rights of inheritance, tax laws, the ability to visit a loved one in a hospital or nursing home), should not be contingent on whether that person lives a life in total conformity to Catholic moral doctrine.

Another key here is that Francis does not see civil unions as necessarily sexual or romantic in nature, nor should they be limited to those of the same sex. This is further demonstrated by his response (or lack thereof) to another Argentine proposal in 2002. Ivereigh explains:

Bergoglio had not raised strong objections to a 2002 civil unions law that applied only to Buenos Aires and that granted rights to any two people cohabiting for more than two years, independent of their gender or sexual orientation. He regarded it as a purely civic, legal arrangement that left marriage unaffected; it granted some privileges but not the right to adopt or any automatic right to inheritance. Yet Bergoglio was criticized from Rome for failing to oppose it when, the following year, the Vatican issued a document binding bishops and politicians to give ‘clear and emphatic opposition’ to any legal recognition of homosexual unions” (pp. 312-313).

Notably, Cardinal Bergoglio was not the first prominent archbishop to indicate tolerance for this type of openness to civil unions. In 1997, Archbishop William Levada penned a column in First Things defending what was dubbed the “San Francisco Solution.” As archbishop of San Francisco, Levada (who later went on to become the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), explained how he decided to respond to an ordinance in San Francisco allowing same-sex civil unions. As a result, employers were compelled to provide benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees, just as they would for a spouse.

As a “compromise,” Levada proposed that rather than providing benefits to someone on the contingency that they were either a spouse or same-sex partner, he would provide benefits to a second person in the household, regardless of relationship. He wrote:

“Under our plan, an employee may indeed elect to designate another member of the household to receive benefits. We would know no more or no less about the employee’s relationship with that person than we typically know about a designated life insurance beneficiary. What we have done is to prohibit local government from forcing our Catholic agencies to create internal policies that recognize domestic partnerships as a category equivalent to marriage.”

He was not without his critics, from both the right and the left. But his proposal was grounded in principle. He asked, “If it is a question of benefits, why should not blood relatives, or an elderly person or a child who lives in the same household, enjoy these same benefits?”

Perhaps, therefore, it isn’t as unlikely as it might seem that—despite his reputation as a strident traditionalist—the current Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, provided one of the stronger defenses of Pope Francis’s words from the US episcopate. In an official statement, he explained the Church’s approach:

“In our bishops region’s audience with Pope Francis last January during our ad limina visit (the visit diocesan bishops make every five years to the Vatican), the topic of civil unions came up in conversation. 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. Indeed, the sexual relationship that marriage is presumed to involve is the only kind by which children are naturally made. 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.”

I must admit I was surprised by the overwhelming reaction to this story today. As someone who has followed Francis closely since the beginning of his papacy and has become familiar with his thought and outlook, nothing struck me as unusual or remarkable about his comments. The words Francis spoke were neither unprecedented nor inconsistent with what he has said in the past. Those who were hoping that this was a watershed moment or change in Church teaching on human sexuality will be disappointed. Those who imagined that these words somehow meant that Pope Francis had crossed an integral doctrinal line are also terribly mistaken.

I fear the response was predicated by the rising tensions in our Church and in our culture, especially in the US, where an extremely polarized country is facing a contentious presidential election. In reality, these words from the pope are just one more sign of Pope Francis’s desire for dialogue and fraternity, and his pastoral heart for all people, no matter who they are.


Fr. Agustino Torres, in this Instagram video, clarifies the translation, verifying my interpretation of the quotes based on the original Spanish.

Image: Screenshot from “Francesco” trailer: https://youtu.be/ocXc_SpmI48

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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