What did Pope Francis say about civil unions? A CNA Explainer

Denver Newsroom, Oct 21, 2020 / 06:49 pm (CNA).-

“Francesco,” a newly released documentary on the life and ministry of Pope Francis, has made global headlines, because the film contains a scene in which Pope Francis calls for the passage of civil union laws for same-sex couples.

Some activists and media reports have suggested that Pope Francis has changed Catholic teaching by his remarks. Among many Catholics, the pope’s comments have raised questions about what the pope really said, what it means, and what the Church teaches about civil unions and marriage. CNA looks at those questions.

What did Pope Francis say about civil unions?

During a segment of “Francesco” which discussed Pope Francis’ pastoral care of Catholics who identify as LGBT, the pope made two distinct comments.

He said first that: “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.”

While the pope did not elaborate on the meaning of those remarks in the video, Pope Francis has spoken before to encourage parents and relatives not to ostracize or shun children who have identified as LGBT. This seems to be the sense in which the pope spoke about the right of people to be a part of the family.

Some have suggested that when Pope Francis spoke about a “right to a family,” the pope was offering a kind of tacit endorsement of adoption by same-sex couples. But the pope has previously spoken against 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.”

On civil unions, the pope said that: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”

“I stood up for that,” Pope Francis added, apparently in reference to his proposal to brother bishops, during a 2010 debate in Argentina over gay marriage, that accepting civil unions might be a way to prevent the passage of same-sex marriage laws in the country.

What did Pope Francis say about gay marriage?

Nothing. The topic of gay marriage was not discussed in the documentary. In his ministry, Pope Francis has frequently affirmed the doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church that marriage is a lifelong partnership between one man and one woman.

While Pope Francis has frequently encouraged a welcoming disposition to Catholics who identify as LGBT, the pope has also said that “marriage is between a man and a woman,” amd said that “the family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage,” and that efforts to redefine marriage “threaten to disfigure God’s plan for creation.”

Why are the pope’s comments about civil unions a big deal?

While Pope Francis has previously discussed civil unions, he has not explicitly endorsed the idea in public before. While the context of his quotes in the documentary is not fully revealed, and it is possible the pope added qualifications not seen on camera, an endorsement of civil unions for same-sex couples is a very different approach for a pope, one that represents a departure from the position of his two immediate predecessors on the issue.

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 taught that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”

Even if civil unions might be chosen by people other than same-sex couples, like siblings or committed friends, the CDF said that homosexual relationships would be “foreseen and approved by the law,” and that civil unions “would obscure certain basic moral values and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage.”

“Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, 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 2003 CDF document contains doctrinal truth, and the positions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI on how best to apply the Church’s doctrinal teaching to policy questions regarding the civil oversight and regulation of marriage. While those positions are consistent with the long-standing discipline of the Church on the issue, they are not themselves regarded as articles of faith.

Some people have said what the pope taught is heresy. Is that true?

No. The pope’s remarks did not deny or call into question any doctrinal truth that Catholics must hold or believe. In fact, the pope has frequently affirmed the Church’s doctrinal teaching regarding marriage.

The pope’s apparent call for civil union legislation, which seems to be different from the position expressed by the CDF in 2003, has been taken to represent a departure from a long-standing moral judgment that Church leaders have taught supports and upholds the truth. The CDF document said that civil union laws give tacit consent to homosexual behavior; while the pope expressed support for civil unions, he has spoken in his pontificate about the immorality of homosexual acts.

It is also important to note that a documentary interview is not a forum for official papal teaching. The pope’s remarks were not presented in their fullness, and no transcript has been presented, so unless the Vatican offers additional clarity, they need to be taken in light of the limited information available about them.

We have same-sex marriage in this country. Why is anyone talking about civil unions?

There are 29 countries in the world that legally recognize same-sex “marriage.” Most of them are in Europe, North America, or South America. But in other parts of the world, the debate over the definition of marriage is just getting started. In parts of Latin America, for example, the redefinition of marriage is not a settled political topic, and Catholic political activists there have opposed moves to normalize civil union legislation.

Opponents of civil unions say they are usually a bridge to same-sex marriage legislation, and marriage campaigners in some countries have said they are concerned that LGBT lobbyists will use the pope’s words in the documentary to advance a pathway to same-sex marriage.

What does the Church teach about homosexuality?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that those who identify as LGBT “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”

The Catechism elaborates that homosexual inclinations are “objectively disordered,” homosexual acts are “contrary to the natural law,” and those who identify as lesbian and gay, like all people, are called to the virtue of chastity.

Are Catholics bound to agree with the pope on civil unions?

Pope Francis’ statements in “Francesco” do not constitute formal papal teaching. While the pope’s affirmation of the dignity of all people and his call for respect of all people are rooted in Catholic teaching, Catholics are not obliged to support a legislative or policy position because of the pope’s comments in a documentary.

Some bishops have expressed that they are awaiting further clarity on the pope’s comments from the Vatican, while one explained that: “While Church teaching on marriage is clear and irreformable, the conversation must continue about the best ways to reverence the dignity of those in same–sex relationships so that they are not subject to any unjust discrimination.”

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  1. Thought 1: Whereas the 2003 CDF document is entitled ‘Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons’, much water has flowed down the Tiber since then, – at least in countries where “gay marriage” is a sort of fait accompli. Hence, a wholesome roll-back of such civil recognition may not come about in the near future. As shown in the string of citations in my comment toward the bottom of https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2020/10/16/biden-backs-transgender-rights-for-children-during-town-hall/ , not just Biden and the Democrats, but “the most pro-gay President” Trump (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1296305484279021570 ) and the Republicans also are in favor of “LGBT rights”.
    [Trump is “fine” with “gay marriage” as “settled (civil) law” > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjcPtySSP-g ].

    If the likes of Amy Coney Barrett ignore stare decisis and threaten Roe v. Wade or the 2015 “gay marriage” Supreme Court decision, we can expect the Democrats to codify both. The Republicans may codify the latter, – under pressure, among other quarters, from their “LGBT” wings like
    https://www.youtube.com/user/LCRNational/videos and

    All this means that so far as the Church is concerned, “gay marriage” is likely to be around on the civil side at least in the near term. Consequently, there will continue to be areas of friction between Church and state, as well as, ‘on the ground’ – between those who “identify” within the “LGBT” ‘umbrella’ and those who do not. Catholics caught up in all this may wrestle, among other things, with being faithful to CCC 2358 (https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6.htm ) regarding what constitutes just (as opposed to unjust) discrimination. [Refusal by Catholic foster/adoption agencies to place children with “gay couples” may be an example of just discrimination.]

    Enter Pope (“¡Hagan Lío!” > make-a-mess!”) Francis.

    Thought 2: Has the original source for this latest news (the director of the documentary?) faithfully presented the Pope’s actual remarks on the subject in full, without editing / summarizing / paraphrasing (>> anything lost in translation?), etc.?

    Thought 3: (Off-the-cuff?) remarks attributed to the Pope especially in interviews / documentaries are not necessarily magisterial, as the above CNA Explainer itself notes. [Affirming the truth and value of, say, Humanae Vitae, in an interview, does not necessarily carry the same ‘weight’ as other remarks.]

    Thought 4: Presuming the accuracy of the news, it is clear that this does raise confusion about why the Pope made these remarks, – considering that the bit about civil unions does prima facie seem to conflict with the CDF’s 2003 letter.

    Thought 5: Just as Pope Benedict’s remarks on the use of condoms by a male prostitute – https://www.ignatius.com/promotions/light-of-the-world/excerpt.htm – raised a dust-up initially but was later clarified by the CDF through https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20101221_luce-del-mondo_en.html , until a clarification comes from official sources such as the CDF / Vatican Press Office, etc., on these latest remarks of the Pope, it may be better to suspend judgment.

    Thought 6: The Church, while in no way approving or blessing slavery, reluctantly put up with that evil once upon a time, and arguably may have tried to ‘mitigate’ its more harmful aspects.

    Is something along those lines behind Pope Francis’ latest tightrope-walk comments?

    By Pope Benedict’s reasoning, a male prostitute using a condom to protect against infection MAY be “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants” [*”but it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”*].

    On a parallel / analogous (?) note, considering that…

    (A) the 2003 CDF document says: ‘Moral conscience requires that, in every occasion, Christians give witness to the whole moral truth, which is contradicted both by approval of homosexual acts and *unjust* discrimination against homosexual persons’,

    (B) the CDF document also says: ‘In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, *as far as possible*, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection’, [That raises the question > are there situations where it may NOT be possible to refrain from material cooperation?]

    (C) in respect of countries being pressured to recognize homosexual ‘unions’, as the above CNA Explainer notes, ‘accepting civil unions MIGHT be’ – considered by some as – ‘a way to prevent the passage of same-sex marriage laws in the country.’

    (D) rampant promiscuity, substance abuse, mental health issues, instability, loneliness, unhealthy / dangerous “sexual” practices having a high risk of spreading STDs / STIs seem to be more prevalent in the homosexual ‘world’.

    In an effort to wean at least some of the deceived away from the lowermost regions of such a hellish existence, is Pope Francis of the view that reluctantly putting up with civil unions that ‘legally cover’ homosexuals MAY be a first step in the direction of a comparatively less dangerous state of affairs?, [‘but this is not even remotely analogous to marriage – whether sacramental or non-sacramental between a man and a woman.]
    Plus, the Pope has made clear – for instance at https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2019-05/pope-francis-interview-televisa-women-sexual-abuse-migrants.html – that he does not approve homosexual acts at all.

    By legal coverage, perhaps the Pope is indicating a way to avoid the *unjust* discrimination referred to in (A) above – by
    the state recognizing stuff like visitation rights in hospitals / hospices, inheritance rights for homosexual “partners”, etc…?

    Anyhow, hopefully further clarification would come from Rome.

  2. The Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church has called for granting legal recognition and legitimacy to relationships based upon sodomy. His comments require repudiation, not clarification. In a way, it is worse than Amoris Laetitia; the deliberate ambiguity is gone. The crisis has reached the point where faithful Catholics must demand that this reprobate resign his office before he causes even more damage.

  3. This was a huge mistake by the Pope, and almost immediately Bishops came out with statements aiming to clarify the Church’s teaching. Unfortunately, so many Catholics do not know the catechism nor bother to investigate and understand the truth. Statements like this have caused, and will continue to cause, much confusion in the Church.

    Those low-catechized on the far right will MOURN and say, “The Church doesn’t teach that anymore.”

    Those low-catechized on the far left will BE GLEEFUL and say, “The Church doesn’t teach that anymore!”

    Both of these positions, and resulting exact statement, are the embodiment of the error of modernism.

    Combine that with the media running away with it, and it’s little wonder why our Bishops have been rendered impotent.

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