Catholic leaders call for clarity on Pope Francis civil union remarks

Catholic leaders call for clarity on Pope Francis civil union remarks

Pope Francis. Credit: Vatican Media.
Pope Francis. Credit: Vatican Media.

.- Bishops and prominent Catholics have responded to a new documentary in which Pope Francis is featured calling for civil recognition of same-sex unions, calling for caution and telling Catholics to await clarity from the Vatican after the remarks caused confusion.

The pope’s comments were made in “Francesco,” a documentary on the life and ministry of Pope Francis, released Wednesday. The film made global headlines, because the it contains a scene in which Pope Francis is portrayed calling for the passage of civil union laws for same-sex couples.

In the film, the pope is shown saying that “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.” The apparent endorsement of civil recognition of same-sex couples by the pope garnered the widespread reaction.

“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family,” the pope also was shown to say in the video, in a section subsequently shown to be heavily edited. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it,” the pope said, in reference to his approach to pastoral care.

The pope has often spoken of the need for pastoral closeness and love for people who identify as LGBT, and against family members, especially parents, ostracizing or rejecting them on account of their sexual orientation. The pope has also repeatedly said that marriage exists between one man and one woman.

Some activists and media reports have suggested that Pope Francis had changed Catholic teaching by his remarks.

The context and manner in which the film was shot, compiled and edited, have raised questions about what the pope said, the context in which he said it, what it means, and what the Church teaches about civil unions and marriage.

“Pope Francis’ remarks giving qualified support to civil unions of same–sex couples are not his first as pope,” said St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda on Wednesday.

“While affirming Church teaching that marriage can only be between one man and one woman, he along with others who defend traditional marriage, has shown openness to civil unions as a kind of middle way that would allow persons of the same sex in long-term relationships to have legal benefits without a civil redefinition of marriage itself.”

The archbishop said that “Church teaching on marriage is clear and irreformable,” but that “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.”

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh said that the comments in the documentary “reflect [the pope’s] pastoral approach to persons who may be on the peripheries of society,” and “in no way signal a departure from the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning marriage or homosexuality.”

“It speaks, rather, of a pastoral approach to these issues,” Zubik said.

“In essence, Pope Francis has not promoted change in the moral or sacramental teaching of the Church. He has simply called for all people to be treated with the dignity and love which is their due by being created in God’s image and likeness and being children of the Heavenly Father.”

A 2003 document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expressed opposition to civil unions for same-sex couples, saying that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”

The film’s portrayal of a papal endorsement of same-sex unions did not change Church teaching, or alter the Church’s understanding of the nature of homosexual acts. But Francis’s apparent call for legal “cover” for same-sex unions would represent a shift in the prudential judgement of public policy options made by his predecessors.

Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth also responded to the film’s release, saying that “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.”

Noting that Pope Francis has repeatedly affirmed the Church’s unchanging position that marriage exists, and can only exist, between one man and one woman, Olson said that “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.”
 
“It is a misunderstanding of rights to suggest or infer that legal arrangements of civil societies canconfer a status equivalent to marriage to couples who do not conform to God’s intention and design for marriage.”

Following the release of “Francesco”, some prominent Catholics highlighted their own past support for civil unions as a way of providing legal protections for couples of various kinds, without building a bridge towards civil recognition of same-sex marriage.

Ryan Anderson, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, noted Wednesday that he and Princeton Professor Robert George had previously argued that civil unions would “neither introduce a rival ‘marriage-lite’ option, or treat same-sex unions as marriages.”

The Church previously opposed the recognition of civil unions, even those explicitly defined as distinct from marriage, because they could lead to eventual recognition of “same-sex marriage,” as they have done in countries like the U.K., and because they could have “the consequence of making it a model in present-day society,” and “also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity.”

Some have raised questions about the significance of the pope’s comments, given that many Western countries have already brought in laws recognizing same-sex civil unions and “same-sex marriage.” But Jesuit priest and LGBT campaigner Fr. James Martin said on Twitter that the pope’s comments are “a big deal.”

“For those who think the Pope's comments about same-sex civil unions are no big deal: Perhaps in the US or Western Europe. But in places like Poland, where some bishops are virulently anti-LGBT; or Uganda, where bishops side with laws criminalizing homosexuality, it's a big deal.”

Martin’s comments triggered a strong response from Eastern European and African Catholics, who suggested the Jesuit’s comments were a form of cultural colonialism.

“What a shame to see an American priest passing judgement on African bishops!” responded Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban. “Why is it a shame? Because [Martin] doesn’t know the context.”

“In recent years, especially in [President] Obama’s time, enormous pressure was put on African leaders to introduce all the Western ‘isms’ as a condition for receiving aid,” the cardinal said.

“Legalizing of abortion and homosexuality were the foremost,” Napier said.

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