Pope Francis has explicitly backed same-sex civil unions for the first time since becoming pope.
In an interview in a documentary film, Francesco, which premiered at the Rome film festival yesterday (21 October), he said:
‘Homosexual people have a right to be in a family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it. What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.’
Now prominent LGBT+ Catholics have welcomed the news.
Father James Martin is a prominent Jesuit who says the church should embrace LGBT+ people. He tweeted: ‘Pope Francis’s support for same-sex civil unions is a major step forward in the church’s support of LGBTQ people.
‘It is in keeping with his pastoral approach to LGBT people, including LGBT Catholics, and sends a strong signal to countries where the church has opposed such laws.’
Meanwhile, Ozanne Foundation, an organization for LGBT+ people of faith, said:
‘This will bring hope to millions of lesbian and gay couples around the world, and will enable them to know that they have the pope’s blessing to be in a family, and indeed to have a right to a family.
‘His words of comfort show a deep pastoral understanding of the pain that many LGBT [people] have gone through, and provide a significant challenge to all those who see their faith as a reason to discriminate against LGBT people.’
The feature-length documentary by director Evgeny Afineevsky takes a much broader look at Francis’ papacy. It includes how he has managed the pedophile abuse scandal in the church.
Prominent international figures also welcomed Pope Francis’ comments.
António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations and a devout Catholic, said via a spokesman that the pope’s comments were ‘a very positive move’.
The spokesman added that Guterres had ‘spoken out very forcefully against homophobia in favour of LGBTQ rights, that people should never be persecuted or discriminated against just for who they love.’
Meanwhile the Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin tweeted:
‘With focus on COVID it’s important we don’t miss big positive events in the world around us.
‘The intervention of Pope Francis on the rights of gay couples is just such a moment.
‘It represents momentous leadership and will hopefully be a catalyst for change throughout the Church.’
LGBT+ Catholic groups
Unsurprisingly, LGBT+ Catholics were also quick to welcome the pope’s remarks. And they think his words could have wider implications.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the LGBT+ New Waves Catholic ministry, said:
‘It is an historic moment when the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, long seen as a persecutor of LGBTQ people, moves in such a supportive direction for lesbian [and] gay couples and their families.
‘It signals that the church is continuing to develop more positively its approach to LGBTQ issues.’
However DeBernardo wants to see Francis go further and bless same-sex unions in church. He said:
‘Since the pope framed his support for civil unions by saying that same-gender couples are “right to be a part of the family”, it would not be a long stretch for him to do so.’
Meanwhile UK group LGBT+ Catholics Westminster said:
‘Pope Francis has broken new ground in affirming the right of LGBT+ people “to be in a family”.
‘The Roman Catholic Church’s official position does not accept same-sex marriage due to it not being encompassed within its sacramental understanding of marriage, as between one man and one woman. However, increasingly, there is no similar issue with civil unions.’
Like DeBernardo, the group thinks it may open the door to the church going further:
‘In 2014, the Bishops of England and Wales recognised the social value of same-sex civil unions in their response to the UK Government’s consultation on the future of civil partnerships.
‘Although they do not authorise blessings of these unions, thanksgiving liturgies are increasingly common at grass-roots parish levels.
‘LGBT+ Catholic communities include a diversity of people: those in civil partnerships, others in same-sex marriage, some committed to celibacy, and others simply remaining single.’
A right to have a family?
Moreover Alfonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, seized on Francis’ mention of families.
He said the pope is ‘making clear that LGBTQ people have a right to their own families’.
Again DeBernardo argues that Francis would have used the word ‘couples’ rather than ‘families’ if he hadn’t intended that wider meaning. However, the pope has previously spoken against rainbow families.
‘Objectively immoral relationships’
Despite the optimism, there will be some barriers ahead.
Already prominent Catholics have said they disagree. One is Ed Mechmann, director of public policy of the Archdiocese of New York. He said outright that the pope was mistaken and added:
‘Supporting the legal recognition of any kind of same-sex union is contrary to church teaching.’
Likewise, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, issued a statement saying:
‘The pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the church about same-sex unions. The church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships.’
Francis’ track record
However, an even bigger roadblock to further progress may be Pope Francis himself.
In particular, he did back civil unions before – when he was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Back then he was actually fighting a bill which eventually passed in Argentina, to allow same-sex marriage equality. But this, the cardinal argued, would ‘seriously harm the family’.
Indeed, he called the bill ‘a machination of the Father of Lies [the Devil] that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.’
At best, his warmth for civil unions may put LGBT+ Catholics on course to a ‘separate but equal’ status, never achieving marriage equality.
This appears to be confirmed by his 2015 comments that same-sex marriage ‘disfigures God’s plan for creation’.
Moreover, he confirmed this view in 2017, when he said:
‘“Marriage” is a historical word. Always in humanity, and not only within the Church, it’s between a man and a woman… we cannot change that. This is the nature of things. This is how they are. Let’s call them “civil unions”. Let’s not play with the truth.’
When it comes to picking sides, Francis has repeatedly backed anti-LGBT+ forces in the church over same-sex, marriage and families.
Meanwhile, he has been just as outspoken and negative over other LGBT+ issues, notably saying trans people are like ‘nuclear weapons’.
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