In a torrent of media coverage, it has been reported that Pope Francis, the spiritual and political leader of the Roman Catholic Church, has endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples. Those of us who read this story today each bring to it a different set of lenses that filter the story and color its meaning. Before considering a couple of different perspectives and raising some concerns, it is worth looking at the context in which the statement was made. Like previous seemingly earth-shattering pronouncements of Pope Francis, this statement came during an informal interaction rather than an official channel, captured in the documentary film, Francesco, screened for the first time on October 21 at the Rome Film Festival.
As reported by Reuters, the quotations taken from the film seem to cast Pope Francis as an armchair policymaker, saying, for instance, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.” Further, in a gentle tone, if somewhat antiquated language, Francis adds: “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. I stood up for that.”
The documentary also includes interview footage with Andrea Rubera, a married gay man and father of three, who was advised by Francis to bring his children to mass, who comments, "He didn't mention what his opinion was about my family so (I think) he is following doctrine on this point but the attitude towards people has massively changed."
Those who are inclined to optimism about progress on human rights may feel the triumphant sense that this age-old institution is embracing new families. But is this progress? Returning to the initial observation that there are many different perspectives from which to consider this question, it depends on where you are standing right now.
If you are standing in a country where same-sex relationships can carry penalties of imprisonment or worse, this must seem a remarkable development – having the leader of the Roman Catholic Church acknowledge that you have a right to legal recognition of your relationship and freedom from violence against you on that basis. Given the source of the statement, it is hard not to rejoice that legal campaigns led and sanctioned by church officials in recent years in places as diverse as Poland and Cameroon and the Philippines are apparently being challenged at the highest level of authority in the Church.
On the other hand, if you are standing, as I am, in a country that, after a long struggle, now affords recognition of your marriage – so designated – a civil union might feel like an attempt to carve out another class of relationship, purportedly separate but equal.
The last sentence of Francis’s quotation from the documentary, in particular, should give us pause. For the pope is not looking forward; he is looking backward, when he says, “I stood up for that.” A decade ago, the man who would become Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was Archbishop of Buenos Aires in his native Argentina. At that time, he was involved in church organizing against the passage of same-sex marriage legislation, putting him into direct confrontation with the country’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. He was publicly part of church-led opposition to this legislation, calling it “a destructive attack on God’s plan.”
And he advocated the politicially expedient measure of making space for civil unions for same-sex couples as an alternative to marriage. As proposed to the Argentine bishops conference, the civil union was apparently similar to marriage – except that it would not permit such couples to adopt children. This position seems to be one he has maintained consistently, with the same idea elaborated in his 2013 book On Heaven and Earth, in which he states, “Every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.” Five years later, in 2018, Francis repeated this claim: “It is painful to say this today — people speak of varied families, of various kinds of family. The family (as) man and woman in the image of God is the only one.” Last month, it was reported that Francis told some parents of LGBT children, “The Pope loves your children as they are, because they are children of God,” but, again, this statement falls short of stating they would be fit parents.
In addition to this pattern of reinforcing the two-parent, one male and one female, family as the only acceptable model, it is evident that if the Pope were really committed to change, it would be within his magisterial capacity to make declarations that can steer policy in new directions within the church, either by making an ex cathedra pronouncement (described as “infallible”) or, with a different degree of authority, through an encyclical or other document. The remarks revealed in Francesco were not issued in an encyclical, a pastoral letter, a papal bull, a motu proprio, or any other peculiarly ecclesiastical instrument of communication with a related level of authority. Surely his failure to do so on the question of embracing same-sex unions and a more inclusive understanding of family is no mistake. The Pope is quite shrewd, and it is likely he makes these statements in the ways he does in order to avoid rocking the boat. Pope Francis knows he is not breaking any new ground. He is retreading ground he has walked on before.
Regrettably, I conclude that we have no reason to think the Pope has staked out a novel position in this documentary. He has simply stated in new words what seems to be a static position over the last decade; namely, that the church should pragmatically support watered down civil unions for same-sex couples. The outcomes of such a policy position are contradictory, since its impact may vary significantly from one place to another. On the one hand, for those living in places where LGBTQ people are at risk due to legal structures that permit or facilitate physical violence and discrimination, civil unions might promote improved conditions. On the other hand, reverting to a condition in which marriage is an exclusive institution reserved for heterosexual couples concedes a rigid conception of gender upon which the church patriarchy has built a firm foundation of discrimination and exclusion. And this should not be celebrated.