Pope Francis Endorses Civil Unions For Gay Couples. Here's What That Means

By Paula Gallagher
·  7 min read
Pope Francis Endorses Civil Unions For Gay Couples. Here's What That Means

In a documentary about his life, released at the Rome Film Festival yesterday, Pope Francis endorsed civil unions for gay couples.

What Pope Francis Said

The comments came in an interview in a segment of “Francesco,” in which Pope Francis discussed pastoral care for Catholics who identify as LGBT.

The pope said, “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.”

He also said, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.” 

“I stood up for that,” Pope Francis added, possibly referencing his stance in a 2010 debate in Argentina over gay marriage, where he suggested that accepting civil unions might prevent the passage of same-sex marriage laws in the country. Pope Francis has not explicitly endorsed the idea of civil unions in public before as pope. 

“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family."

The pope did not comment on gay marriage in this documentary. In the past, Pope Francis has stated that that “marriage is between a man and a woman,” and that “the family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage,” and that such efforts to redefine marriage “threaten to disfigure God's plan for creation."

Some have questioned if the pope’s comment about a “right to a family” also endorsed adoption by same-sex couples, but the context and the comment are not clear enough to confirm that. In the past, Pope Francis has discouraged such adoptions, saying that through them children are “deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God,” and saying that “every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.”

Breaking with His Predecessors

Pope Francis’ comments depart from the position held by his two predecessors. In 2003, in a document approved by Pope John Paul II and written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, (who became Pope Benedict XVI), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) taught that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”

The CDF said that civil unions for homosexual relationships “would obscure certain basic moral values and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage.”

The Catholic Church’s definition of marriage as between one man and one woman still stands.

“Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity,” the document concluded.

The Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage as a freely-consenting, “lifetime, exclusive partnership between one man and one woman, who give and receive mutual help and love and, from their union, bring forth and rear children” still stands. 

Documentary Details

The documentary “Francesco” premiered on Wednesday at the Rome Film Festival in the Special Events Section. Today, it received the 18th Kinéo Prize. The "Kinéo Movie for Humanity Award" is awarded to those who promote social and humanitarian themes. The U.S. premiere is October 25 at the Savannah Film Festival. The film was produced in part with the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. 

Directed by Evgeny Afineevky, the film covers issues such as the environment, poverty, migration, racial and income inequality, and the people most affected by discrimination — causes close to the pope’s heart.

Afineevsky achieved access to cardinals, the Vatican television archives, and the pope by “negotiating his way in through persistence, and deliveries of Argentine mate tea and Alfajores cookies.” 

Reactions to Pope Francis’s Comments

LGBTQ+ groups are cautiously celebrating. DignityUSA, an organization representing LGBTQ Catholics, said it is "cautiously optimistic," but the group is waiting for more information and context, as well as the Vatican’s response.  

"If this statement is allowed to stand, this could be a global game-changer for gay and lesbian people, for same-sex couples, for LGBTQ people broadly. I think we're just going to have to see where it lands," said Marianne Duddy-Burke, DignityUSA's executive director.

"I think it's going to be greeted with a great deal of mass confusion on the part of the laity."

Catholics are worried about the consequences of Pope Francis’s comments because they will cause confusion and because they represent a departure from Church teaching. The remarks are a form of "pastoral outreach," commented Bill Donohue, president of the U.S.-based Catholic League, a conservative group. "It's not going to change doctrine. He doesn't have the authority to do that anyhow."

He continued, "I think it's going to be greeted with a great deal of mass confusion on the part of the laity... I think the lack of clarity is the most disturbing thing about this."

What Does This Mean for the Catholic Church?

So what do Pope Francis’ comments mean for the Catholic Church? Firstly, we need to acknowledge that this was a filmed interview, which means it was most likely edited. Therefore, we don’t know the full context of the comments or if the pope included qualifications or explanations that were cut from the scene. The Vatican hasn’t commented or clarified anything, so we need to view his comments in the light of the limited information that it is.

Secondly, this was an interview conversation, not an official proclamation of doctrine or Church teaching. Most likely, his comments were based on personal opinion.

Unfortunately, his comments are going to cause much confusion in the Catholic community and the world in general because the pope is the head of the Catholic Church and we rightly expect him to uphold and proclaim Catholic doctrine. So when he departs from established Church teaching, it raises questions about how seriously to take what he said and if his words are an indication of change to come. However, what people can forget, is that the pope is also human. Popes can say things that aren’t in line with official Church teaching. Popes only speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals when certain criteria are met

The pope teaches infallibly when he proclaims, by a definitive act, a doctrine to be held concerning faith or morals.

Most people have probably heard the phrase ex cathedra, which is Latin for “from the throne.”  It is a metaphor that refers to when the pope is speaking in a “deliberately formal, official way, exercising his power as the Vicar of Christ, seated on the chair of Peter, the first Pope...when the Pope intentionally speaks in a definitive way on a dogmatic issue, he is being guided by the Holy Spirit and thus he cannot err.”

For example, when Pope Pius XII taught infallibly in 1950 about the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he published a document that said, “by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.”

It is apparent from the language used that Pope Pius clearly intended to exercise papal infallibility on this matter.

Closing Thoughts

The Catholic Church’s definition of papal infallibility says that by virtue of his office as pope, he teaches infallibly when he proclaims, by a definitive act, a doctrine to be held concerning faith or morals. Nothing is proclaimed infallibly if it doesn’t pertain to faith and morals. And the pope has to have the intention to be making a deliberate, formal, official infallible statement. The Pope’s comments in an interview conversation simply don’t fulfill these criteria. 

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