In a major departure from the Catholic Church’s position on same-sex relationships, Pope Francis has endorsed civil unions as a way to provide legal protections for LGBTQ couples.
The pope made the explosive new comments in an interview for a documentary, “Francesco,” that documents his own life journey. The film first premiered in Rome on October 21.
“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family,” Francis said in the documentary, according to the Catholic News Agency. “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 added, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”
The wording of his final point in the past tense suggests that Francis, at some point in the past, already advocated for civil unions, even if it may have been in private. In 2010, during his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires, the future pope stood in opposition to the marriage equality push that swept through Argentina that year and culminated in the legalization of same-sex marriage.
According to the Catholic News Agency, however, his biographer, Sergio Rubin, indicated that Francis was, at the time, in favor of civil unions as a compromise and to prevent adoption rights for same-sex couples.
Significantly, while Argentina was a leader on marriage equality, Italy, home to the Vatican, lags behind other Western European democracies. It does not recognize marriage equality and adopted civil unions only in 2016.
While the comments represent Francis’ most explicit endorsement of civil unions, it is not the first time he has publicly opened up about such unions for same-sex couples. New Ways Ministry, a national LGBTQ Catholic organization, noted that Francis already spoke about civil unions for same-sex couples in 2017 for a book entitled “Politics and Society.”
“Marriage between people of the same sex? ‘Marriage’ is an historical word,” Pope Francis said three years ago, according to that book. “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.’ Lets not play with the truth. It’s true that behind it there is a gender ideology. In books also, children are learning that they can choose their own sex. Why is sex, being a woman or a man, a choice and not a fact of nature? This favors this mistake. But let’s say things as they are: Marriage is between a man and a woman. This is the precise term. Lets call unions between the same sex ‘civil unions.’”
That statement is indicative of Francis’ continued resistance to transgender rights, even as he has evolved on gay and lesbian people.
LGBTQ Catholics and allies welcomed Francis’ comments immediately after they surfaced on October 21, though some offered mixed responses.
Calling it “an historic moment,” New Ways Ministry executive director Francis DeBernardo told Gay City News that his organization, which advocates for LGBTQ Catholics, “gratefully welcomes Pope Francis’ latest support for civil unions for same-gender couples” and noted that his comments are a signal that the Church is moving forward on LGBTQ issues.
“At the same time, we urge Pope Francis to apply the same kind of reasoning to recognize and bless these same unions of love and support within the Catholic Church, too,” DeBernardo said in a written statement. “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.”
DignityUSA, another group for LGBTQ Catholics, characterized Francis’ comments as “cautiously optimistic” and its executive director encouraged him to embrace full marriage equality.
“If true, the Pope’s comments could represent an international game-changer and a major step forward for LGBTQI equality,” DignityUSA executive director Marianne Duddy-Burke said in a written statement. “While pleased by the news reports, we wonder how the Pope’s comments fit with existing Catholic teachings that condemn same-sex relationships as ‘intrinsically evil.’ We hope that Pope Francis will take steps to enshrine support for same-sex couples, LGBTQI individuals, and our families in official Catholic teachings and will work to formally end Catholic teachings that are hurtful to LGBTQI people.”
Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson, who has played a leading role in advocating for marriage equality in the United States and around the world, said it was “heartening” to see Francis’ comments about civil unions and legal protections for same-sex couples.
“The Pope’s strong stand shows the progress we have made in helping non-gay people of good will understand who gay and trans people are, why marriage matters to our families, and shared values of love, respect, dignity, inclusion, and empathy,” Wolfson told Gay City News in a written statement. “Of course, to be clear, marriage is, under law, a civil union, while separate ‘civil unions’ under a separate regime are not marriage. When it comes to the right to marry, as distinct from religious rites, the law should treat all loving and committed couples equally. It’s time for the freedom to marry under the law for all couples in all countries.”
Francis’ comments were well-received by Aaron Bianco, an out gay professor of theology at the University of San Diego who was once forced to resign from his post as a pastoral associate at a Catholic Church in San Diego after he faced a barrage of homophobic attacks from anti-LGBTQ news sites.
“Pope Francis once again is showing that the heart of the Church must be welcoming,” Bianco said in a written statement. “It is a colossal step for the pontiff to endorse civil unions. In doing so, he shows that he, and in turn, the Church, are looking for ways to be a welcoming place for all LGBT Catholics. All Catholics should applaud this advancement.”
The pope’s comments are yet another example of a gradual shift in the Catholic Church’s attitude toward LGBTQ folks under Francis, who has, on several occasions, turned heads with his willingness to reach out to the LGBTQ community. At the same time, while he has also previously voiced comments saying he would not judge queer folks, he has also expressed that the idea of gay priests “worries me” and described being gay as “fashionable” and “a very serious matter.” And his occasional comments on transgender people have stung.
Still, in a church that has historically offered very little opportunity for progress on LGBTQ rights, Francis has been viewed as a leader with a surprisingly open mind on such issues — especially in comparison to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who blasted same-sex marriage, abortion, and assisted reproduction in an interview earlier this year during which he complained about cultural shifts on same-sex marriage.
Decades before he ascended to the papacy in 2005, Benedict, formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, authored a letter titled “The Pastoral Care of Homosexuals” in which he said gay people’s inclinations are not sinful, but “it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”
A Catholic lesbian group at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This story first appeared on our sister publication gaycitynews.com.