Pope has history of defending marriage, but being open to some civil unions
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated by North Texas Catholic staff with additional comments from Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth.
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis often has expressed openness to the idea of laws recognizing civil unions, including for gay couples, to protect their rights.
The pope’s comments in a brief passage in the documentary film, “Francesco,” are similar to the position he took while archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and echo remarks he has made in several interviews during his pontificate: “Marriage” is only between a man and a woman, but civil union laws could provide legal protection for couples in long-term, committed relationships.
Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth responded to speculation in the secular media that the Catholic Church would revise her teaching on marriage. He explained, “Comments recently recorded in the making of a documentary about Pope Francis regarding civil recognition of ‘unions’ between homosexual couples appear to have led some to the erroneous conclusion that the Church’s teaching on marriage has changed or is about to change. Considering the above, faithful Catholics must insist that the Church’s teaching on marriage has not changed and cannot change.”
The bishop continued, “The Church is obliged to hand on faithfully what she has received from Christ. It is the mind of Christ that marriage is an indissoluble bond between one man and one woman. The Church preaches and acts upon this truth, regardless of the passing opinions of nations, states, or cultures.”
Speaking in Spanish in the film, Pope Francis says, “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.”
The film premiered in Rome Oct. 21 and will premiere in North America on Sunday.
Previous remarks from Pope Francis
In a 2014 interview published in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis was asked about moves across Europe to legalize gay marriage or adopt civil union laws. “Marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said. “Secular states want to validate civil unions to regulate different situations of cohabitation, driven by the need to regulate economic aspects between people, such as ensuring health care. These are cohabitation pacts of various kinds, of which I could not list the different forms.”
Bishop Olson said, “It is a misunderstanding of rights to suggest or infer that legal arrangements of civil societies can confer a status equivalent to marriage to couples who do not conform to God’s intention and design for marriage.”
Pope Francis repeatedly has said publicly that parents should not and must not disown a child who is gay, and, on several occasions, he has spoken about the rights all people have to have a family.
In a 2019 interview on Mexican television, he was asked about his opposition to gay marriage in Argentina and his openness to LGBT people as pope.
“I have always defended doctrine,” he said. “It is a contradiction to speak of homosexual marriage.”
But he also told the interviewer, “Homosexual persons have a right to be in the family; persons with a homosexual orientation have a right to be in the family and parents have the right to recognize a son or daughter as homosexual; you cannot throw anyone out of the family, nor make life impossible for them.”
In A Future of Faith: The Path of Change in Politics and Society, a book-length series of conversations with the French sociologist Dominique Wolton, the two spoke about gay marriage and civil unions in the context of a discussion about tradition, modernity, and truth.
“‘Marriage’ is a historical word,” the pope said, in the book published in French in 2017. “Forever, throughout humanity and not only in the Church, it’s been between a man and a woman. You can’t change it just like that. It’s the nature of things. That’s how they are. So, let’s call them ‘civil unions.’”
According to The Great Reformer, a biography of Pope Francis by Austen Ivereigh, then-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio went head-to-head with the government in 2010 when it began a drive to legalize gay marriage.
“He told a Catholic gay activist, a former theology professor named Marcelo Marquez, that he favored gay rights as well as legal recognition for civil unions,” Ivereigh wrote. “But he was utterly opposed to any attempt to redefine marriage in law.”
The future pope, the book continued, “had not raised strong objections to a 2002 civil unions law that applied only to Buenos Aires and that granted rights to any two people cohabitating for more than two years, independent of their gender or sexual orientation. He regarded it as a purely civic, legal arrangement that left marriage unaffected.”
Pope Francis’ position on civil unions is a departure from the stance of the Vatican’s doctrinal office and the pope’s predecessors on the issue.
In 2003 under the direction of St. Pope John Paul II and the leadership of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document urging Catholics to oppose giving “legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons,” particularly when such recognition would equate the unions with marriage and would allow the couple to adopt children.
“The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society,” the doctrinal office added.
By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service