Q&A with Fr John Flader: Pope Francis and civil unions

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A newly married couple kiss Pope Francis’ hands during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Feb. 12, 2020. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

What did Pope Francis actually say about civil unions?

Pope Francis has said he is in favour of civil unions for homosexual couples. I thought the Church was opposed to these. Can you please explain what this is all about?

The first thing to say is that the Pope’s remarks, which made headlines around the world, were made in a newly-released documentary on Pope Francis, titled Francesco.

There, the Pope is speaking off the cuff in answer to questions, so his words do not form part of official Church teaching as they would if they were made, for example, in an encyclical or an official address.

What did the Pope actually say? First he said that persons with same-sex attraction “are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”

We would all agree with that.

“Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it. We would all agree with that.”

The Catechism teaches that people with homosexual tendencies “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (CCC 2358).

So, just as homosexual people are accepted in their natural families, so they are welcome in the family of the Church, even if those in a sexual relationship with their partner are not able to receive Communion.

They can attend Mass, raise their children in the faith and have them receive the sacraments, etc.

The Pope has frequently stated his opposition to same-sex marriage, affirming that marriage is a lifelong partnership between one man and one woman. PHOTO: Josh Applegate
The Pope has frequently stated his opposition to same-sex marriage, affirming that marriage is a lifelong partnership between one man and one woman. PHOTO: Josh Applegate

The controversy over compromising the Church’s marriage laws

The controversy arose when Pope Francis went on to say: “What we have to create is a civil union law.

That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”

The reason for the controversy is that in 2003 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope John Paul II, issued a declaration entitled Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons.

The Considerations state that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions” (n. 11), since the recognition of such unions “would obscure certain basic moral values and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage” (n. 6).

“The Pope has frequently stated his opposition to same-sex marriage, affirming that marriage is a lifelong partnership between one man and one woman.”

When Pope Francis said “I stood up for that” he was undoubtedly referring to his proposal to his brother bishops, during a debate in Argentina in 2010 over same-sex marriage, that accepting civil unions might be a compromise solution to prevent the passage of same-sex marriage laws.

The Pope has frequently stated his opposition to same-sex marriage, affirming that marriage is a lifelong partnership between one man and one woman.

It now seems clear that the statements about homosexual persons and civil unions came from an interview with Pope Francis by Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki in 2019, and that his brief statements in Francesco were excerpted from longer answers given in that interview to two different questions.

Without knowing what else the Pope said in answer to those questions, it is unfair to criticise him without knowing his explanations for those statements.

Members of Sydney's gay community celebrate in 2017. After a majority of Australians indicated they favoured same-sex marriage, Australia's bishops said legislators must ensure that any new law on marriage include protection for religious freedom. Photo: Steven Saphore, Reuters
Members of Sydney’s gay community celebrate in 2017. After a majority of Australians indicated they favoured same-sex marriage, Australia’s bishops said legislators must ensure that any new law on marriage include protection for religious freedom. Photo: Steven Saphore, Reuters

Legal recognition vs Doctrinal Truth

Pope Francis said he was in favour of legal recognition for same-sex couples so that they would be “legally covered.”

It is reasonable that these couples, like any others in long-term relationships, such as those in de facto relationships, flatmates, etc., should have some legal protection.

This is already provided for, for example, in the New South Wales Relationships Register, which went into effect in 2010 and which provides legal recognition for any couple, regardless of their marital status or sex, when they register their relationship.

Were homosexual couples not able to register their relationship, they might consider that they are being unjustly discriminated against.

This all-encompassing civil recognition is preferable to specific civil unions for homosexual couples, which would thereby seem to condone the homosexual lifestyle.

It is important, too, to understand that what Pope Francis has said is not heresy, since the Considerations on how best to apply the Church’s teaching on marriage to the life and laws of a country do not constitute articles of faith, to be believed by all.

They are rather a matter of Church discipline which may be subject to development over time, much like the Church’s teaching regarding the death penalty.

“At the same time, then-Cardinal Bergoglio worked behind the scenes to see whether some sort of compromise might have been possible without positive legal violence to the basic biological structure of marriage.”

Pope Francis did not deny or call into question any doctrinal truth on marriage or sexuality that Catholics must believe.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, took a strong stance against the push for same-sex marriage in his native Argentina, which nevertheless concluded with the approval of a “marriage equality” law in 2010.

At the same time, then-Cardinal Bergoglio worked behind the scenes to see whether some sort of compromise might have been possible, along the lines of civil unions that would offer what he saw to be reasonable accommodation, without positive legal violence to the basic biological structure of marriage.

Nonetheless, coming from the Pope, they tend to be seen in this light.

The Considerations distinguish between the government simply tolerating same-sex unions, that is, allowing them to exist without granting them rights and duties in law, and legitimising them through legislation in their regard. It is the latter that is opposed.

Since such unions place the partners in a state of grave sin, the Considerations say that “where homosexual unions have been legally recognised or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty” (n. 5).

Pope Francis speaks with Valentina Alazraki of the Mexican television station Televisa during an interview that aired in May 2019. The Vatican Secretariat of State has sent a note to nuncios around the world explaining the pope’s comments about civil unions in the documentary “Francesco” by Evgeny Afineevsky. (CNS screenshot/Noticieros Televisa via YouTube

There is context to Pope Francis’ conversation

I have even seen a widely-disseminated headline to the effect that the Pope is now in favour of same-sex marriage, which of course, is not true.

It emerges that those celebrated 20 seconds aren’t one continuous statement from Pope Francis, but rather a montage of lines uttered in different contexts stitched together and covered by strategically timed camera cut-aways.

One Italian analyst claimed this week that there were five separate elements of film, and therefore at least four edits, contained in that 20 second span, which has to be some kind of record.

Moreover, it’s now also seemingly clear that the bit on civil unions didn’t come from Afineevsky’s conversations with Pope Francis but a different interview the pontiff gave 18 months ago, to renowned Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki – who’s almost as much of an institution in Rome as the papacy – but from which, for some as-yet unclear reason, the line about civil unions had been edited out when the interview was released in 2019.

“It emerges that those celebrated 20 seconds aren’t one continuous statement from Pope Francis, but rather a montage of lines uttered in different contexts stitched together and covered by strategically timed camera cut-aways.”

The overall suggestion is that Pope Francis spoke of giving “legal cover” to same-sex relationships, and of a “law on civil coexistence,” in that 2019 interview, but that since his language has been taken out of context, there’s no way to assess what he actually meant.

Did Pope Francis actually say in that 2019 interview what the movie makes it appear he said? Not exactly, because what we see in Francesco is a pastiche of phrases uttered in different contexts, and, in the absence of more information, it’s impossible to know precisely what Francis had in mind.

Some commentators have suggested that when Pope Francis spoke about a “right to a family,” he was endorsing adoption of children by same-sex couples.

But, in fact, he had 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 that “every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.”

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