Today marks one week since the premiere of the documentary Francesco in Rome and since the statements made by Pope Francis on civil unions set off a media firestorm. This post is, by my count, the seventh piece we’ve published at WPI on the subject. If you would like to get caught up, check out my analysis of Francis’s statements in context with what he’s said and done in the past. You should also look at the piece written by Pedro Gabriel, who discovered and analyzed the filmmaker’s editing of the original footage from the 2019 interview in which Francis made his now-famous comments, as well as Pedro’s update when further information emerged. Theologians Dawn Eden Goldstein and Robert Fastiggi analyzed the pope’s statements in light of Catholic doctrine, explaining—rightly—that his statements were of the prudential order, not doctrinal. Finally, I attempted to head off any attempts to “explain away” the pope, as if his statements were meaningless or that he wasn’t really talking about legal permission of civil unions that includes (but is not exclusive to) same-sex partners.

There are some good analyses out there, including this one by Mark Shea, who defends the Holy Father’s statements, but also reminding us that this is a prudential judgement:

“Now prudential judgment is about how best, not whether, to implement the Church’s teaching. What Francis is doing here is addressing that. And what he is saying is that the prudent thing–the thing that has in mind the good of the person who is gay–is that Caesar should protect the rights of that person as of any person to love who they love, to live where and with whom they wish, and to share their property as they see fit. Attempts to attack that wound their dignity as human beings.”

Meanwhile, bishops around the world continue to respond, with mixed results. Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle delivered one of the better statements that I’ve seen from a US bishop. The whole thing is well worth reading, but here’s an excerpt:

“While I have not yet seen exactly what our Holy Father said, he is reported to have made comments in support of civil unions and the legal protections they provide for LGBTQ couples. I do know from prior statements and writings that Pope Francis has expressed his care and concern for people who have same-sex attraction. Here are important facts to keep in mind:

When the Holy Father speaks and or teaches, he is almost always speaking to the Universal Church. The United States already recognizes civil unions of same-sex couples, who are able to marry and receive all the legal protections which that guarantees. However, in many other parts of the world, people with same-sex attraction face considerable oppression, including in some countries, death.

Similarly, and this is very important, Pope Francis continues to strongly support the teaching of the Church that marriage is between a man and a woman and is a permanent union. He has no problem making the necessary distinction between the two realities of civil unions and marriage. His focus on civil unions is more about public policy than church teaching.”

The acting president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, speaking on behalf of the Filipino episcoate, released a statement on Monday. In a show of the type of episcopal unity and support for the pope that we might only dream of in the US, the statement says of the pope:

“He is not out to destroy our morals and orthodoxy. He just wants to do as Jesus himself did. He valued being kind and compassionate more than being right and righteous.

When he read the letter of the man who was raising three children with his homosexual partner, and who expressed his longing to be part of a parish community but was afraid because he knew his kind of life was not approved of in the Church, Pope Francis said, ‘Go and join the parish anyway.’

He did not say ‘Follow the Church laws first before you join the parish community.’ And yet he did not tell him outright that he approved of his homosexual relationship and his effort to come up with a semblance of family by adopting three children and trying to raise them into decent human beings.”

Keep in mind, the Philippines is a nation where neither same-sex marriage nor civil unions are legal. They have not even legalized divorce. Yet the leaders of the Filipino Church were able to easily discern the doctrinal and pastoral nuance in the pope’s message.

One of the challenges with this issue is that we neither want to over-sell nor under-sell the significance of what has happened. Some Catholics, both on the right and on the left, have expressed frustration that the Vatican hasn’t issued a clarification of what Pope Francis meant. Personally, I don’t think it’s at all difficult to glean what he meant. I stand by my original interpretation from last week, which I wrote even before I was aware of the origin of the video or its editing. Pope Francis’s statements were entirely consistent with what he has said before in the past.

That said, those who are trying to exaggerate what the pope has said—on the right and the left—as well as some conservative commentators who are trying to whitewash the plain meaning of his words, are creating confusion from what should be a fairly straightforward issue. Matthew Sitman wrote a good piece for Commonweal asking for more clarification from the Vatican because of the distortion that’s happening. He wrote:

“It is precisely because Francis weighed in on a prudential matter that it would be useful to know more about his intentions. He need not elaborate a grand theory of LGBTQ rights to help his flock better grasp what he wanted to bring to our attention. It would be useful to know if his endorsement is best understood as an unremarkable comment in continuity with his past positions, or if his purpose was to shake things up, to impress upon Catholics that opposition to basic legal protections for LGBTQ people would no longer be tolerated.”

Because the Vatican hasn’t responded, we don’t know whether this was anticipated or if the Vatican communications office (and Pope Francis himself) was blindsided by this story. Gerard O’Connell, writing in America, explains that based on standard protocol, the pope’s statement about civil unions in the original version of the interview, released in 2019, must have been cut by Vatican officials and with the pope’s permission. I think it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that they weren’t thinking about this footage when they gave raw video to director Evgeny Afineevsky when he was making the film.

I’m going to guess that the release of this clip caught Francis and Vatican officials off guard. Most likely it was an accident, but perhaps one where Pope Francis sees the hand of Divine Providence at work. Yes, he said these words, and he meant them. But he also consented back in 2019 to have them erased from the official record. And yet, here we are, a year and a half later, and his words have come out in an unexpected way. When Pope Francis talks about the “God of surprises,” what else can he mean? This is how he described it during an Angelus address in June 2018:

“God is always the God of surprises. The Lord always surprises us. It is an invitation to open ourselves more generously to God’s plans, both on the personal level and on that of the community. In our communities it is important to pay attention to the little and big occasions of goodness that the Lord offers us, allowing ourselves to engage in his dynamics of love, of welcoming and of mercy toward others.”

Regarding the lack of response from Francis or the Vatican, if you hadn’t realized by now that “damage control” is not high on his list of priorities, there shouldn’t be any question now. And Francis clearly sees that as a feature, not a bug, of his leadership style. I agree with this theory put forward by Matthew Sitman:

“By putting these comments out there, but leaving his intentions somewhat vague, Francis is letting the issue be argued about and debated. It’s meant to be pedagogical: he raises the saliency of an issue, and thereby elicits a broad conversation about it. Not only does that signal that the issue has been on his heart, it also draws out both his supporters and critics, letting him survey the responses to his remarks. Armed with this knowledge, he’s better able to discern the way forward. This would be consonant with ways Francis has used a strategic “silence” at other moments in his papacy.”

I don’t think this story is even close to being over. Even though these are casual comments, they do suggest the potential of a concrete shift in the Church’s pastoral approach towards people in the LGBT community.

The final bit of analysis I want to share is that of the Tablet‘s Vatican correspondent Christopher Lamb, who wrote the following reflection in a public post on his Facebook page:

“There has been a lot of reaction to Pope Francis’ same-sex unions remarks – including the question of when he made them and to whom.

All of it underlines some important points about this papacy. Francis refuses to be scripted and has not changed the direct pastoral approach he adopted in Argentina. It is an approach that makes some people nervous.

In communications, the Pope is willing to bypass the central Church machinery and has given far more media interviews than his predecessors. Francis wants to reach as wide an audience as possible, even it means upsetting some Catholics.

His remarks on gays have, unsurprisingly, upset Church hardliners. But the position Francis articulated is shared by bishops across the world. The Pope is distinguishing between civil legislation and a sacramental understanding of marriage. He is not changing doctrine.

In some parts of the world, the rights of gay people are a life or death matter, and the Pope has placed the Church firmly against any unjust discrimination of LGBT people. Francis is willing to ‘break a few plates’ to ensure he communicates his Gospel-based message of compassion.”

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Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

Pope Francis breaks a few plates
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