Signs of an all-too familiar pattern are appearing. 

The narrative that the pope didn’t really say what he said seems to be developing in some conservative Catholic circles. We’re still in the midst of the media circus after Pope Francis was revealed to have made some provocative statements in an upcoming documentary, including, “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family,” and, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”

In the time since the story broke, the clips from the documentary that were revealed on Wednesday morning appear to be footage from a 2019 interview with Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki. At the time, the interview was widely reported, and an official transcript was posted in Spanish on the Vatican website.  

Later—as discussed here by Pedro Gabriel yesterday, and later reported in the New York Times by Jason Horowitz and Natalie Kitroeff—it was discovered that the second part of the quote regarding civil unions had been cut from the interview when it was originally released, and it was stitched together with edited statements regarding homosexuals having a “right to a family.”

I agree that the clear evidence that the video was edited suggests that these clips were put together in this way in order to present the LGBT person’s “right to a family” in the context of a civil union with a partner of the same sex. I understand how it can be misleading: Francis is talking about two different things. He is saying that parents should not shun their children because everyone has a right to a family, and that he has supported civil unions. These are two distinct thoughts. 

That said, in my analysis of the pope’s words, I was still able to glean that he was speaking about two different things. Those who are familiar with his thought will recall the many times he has spoken about how parents must love and welcome their LGBT children. Those who are familiar with his history as an archbishop and pope are likewise quite familiar with his position in favor of civil unions (and his opposition to same-sex marriage).     

Furthermore, some commentators (including Pedro Gabriel) have pointed out that the Spanish term Francis used, “convivencia civil,” which was translated into English as “civil unions,” translates literally to “civil coexistence.” The implication of this, some argue, is that he doesn’t mean “civil unions” at all, but is referring instead to more general civil rights for members of the LGBT community.

This interpretation is implausible. While the term “unión civil” seems to be a more commonly used term in the Spanish-speaking world for civil unions, there are plenty of instances of the term “convivencia civil,” used synonymously and interchangeably with “unión civil.” For example, both terms appear on the website of the Chilean government detailing eligibility for civil unions in accord with their 2015 civil union law uses both terms.

One distinction, however, which is in alignment with Francis’s past thinking on the topic, is that such arrangements are not limited to same-sex couples. In fact, eligibility in this progam applies to any two people—regardless of sex—who consent to entering a stable, permanent union with another adult and are not already in a marriage or civil union with anyone else. The law in Chile appears to be more restrictive than the type of situation supported by the former Archbishop of San Francisco, William Levada, who—as I wrote in my last piece—advocated for such arrangements to also include relatives, such as a parent and adult child, who live in the same residence. The Chilean law (according to this English-language summary, anyway) does not allow for blood-related ascendants and descendants to enter into such unions. 

Catholic News Agency published an article yesterday, quoting Fr. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest who works in the Vatican, confirming that Pope Francis had reiterated his support for civil unions. Then an article later in the day quoted Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez—who is known to be close to the pope—stating that he believed Francis “had not been misquoted,” and referred to the video from Fr. Agustino Torres, who provided his own translation. When I first watched the video yesterday, I thought that Fr. Torres was suggesting that Pope Francis used the term “convivencia” rather than “unión” because the former means something closer to “partnership” or “coexisting together,” whereas the latter connoted a “marital union.” This is something completely in line with Francis’s thinking. It wasn’t until reading last evening’s CNA piece and subsequent commentary that I realized this was part of a mad scramble by certain Catholic outlets to find evidence that the pope simply meant to indicate support for vague laws allowing “civil coexistence” (as opposed to a legal contract between two people).

I’m sorry, but that’s absurd. As someone who has followed Pope Francis closely and is intimately familiar with his outlook and message, it was clear to me what he meant. As Fr. Spadaro said, this is “nothing new.” It was evident without the benefit of the alternate translations and the information about the video editing.

Do we really have to go through this again?

My advice to Catholics for whom this is difficult to accept: don’t deny the reality of what Pope Francis very clearly said. For Catholics who are taking refuge in the official status of the 2003 CDF document and the fact that Francis expressed his thoughts informally: you might want to brace yourself for potential disappointment. No, he hasn’t taught this officially—yet. But it’s important to note that this is a prudential matter, and the Church’s approach could very well change. Francis’s position does not violate doctrine, and the present circumstances in the world might prompt an official change in the Church’s approach to this question.

At this point, if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to read the doctrinal justification for Pope Francis’s position by theologians Dawn Eden Goldstein, SThD, and Robert Fastiggi, PhD, that we published yesterday. I believe it reflects the thought of Pope Francis on the matter, and clearly lays out why his position is in alignment with Catholic doctrine.

We are once again seeing signs that we’re headed down the same bumpy road, unfortunately. It results in nothing but needless tension and division in the Church. We’ve seen it happen several times, and it looks like it could very well happen again. Here are the seven phases of Pope Francis frustration: 

  • First, Pope Francis says something provocative (“we need to change the teaching on the death penalty,” or “we need to find new ways to integrate those who are divorced and remarried into the life of the Church”). 
  • This provokes reactions among conservative Catholics ranging from outrage to frustration and worry. Wary Catholics reassure each other that there’s nothing to it (“he hasn’t taught this formally,” or “it’s just his private opinion”).
  • Next, he teaches something officially (the revision to Catechism section #2267, Amoris Laetitia).
  • Then, the same people find workarounds or loopholes that deny the substance of the teaching (“A change to the Catechism isn’t how the pope promulgates magisterial teaching,” or “Well, Amoris can be interpreted in an orthodox way”).
  • Later, Pope Francis explicitly and officially reaffirms what a plain reading of the teaching already said (when he reasserted the inadmissibility of the death penalty in Fratelli Tutti, when he promulgated the Argentine bishops’ guidelines for Amoris Laetitia as authentic Magisterium).
  • When this happens, the same people become extremely disappointed. Typically they will find more excuses and loopholes that allow them to reject the teaching, while still clinging desperately to the idea that they don’t dissent from Church teaching and are entirely orthodox and loyal Catholics.
  • Inevitably, every time this happens, a few more “big names” decide to make some kind of sensational media splash, condemning the pope and his teachings and urging other Catholics that they are right, and Pope Francis is teaching error (or a heretic, or is leading the faithful astray, or whatever). 

Please, let’s not go through this again. While we can’t predict the future, I would advise being open to the possibility that what Francis said in the interview may someday be reflected in official Church teaching. We once again are faced with a choice: we can either again fight tooth-and-nail against the Successor of Peter, or we can trust in the Holy Spirit to guide the Church.

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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.

The futility of “Explaining the pope away”
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