Did Pope Francis Support Same-Sex Civil Unions?

March 6, 2014

Pope Francis

Pope Francis made headlines once again with another interview which has people around the globe hoping for possible change in the Catholic hierarchy’s position about lesbian and gay relationships.  But, did his words really offer such hope?

Corriere della Seraa major Italian daily, published the interview, which focused primarily on sex abuse, women, and contraception.  Yet the pope did mention the idea of civil unions in answer to a question by the interviewer, Ferruccio deBortoli, the news paper’s editor in chief.  Here is Zenit’s English translation of that section:

Editor:  Many countries have regulated civil unions. Is it a path that the Church can understand? But up to what point?

Holy Father: Marriage is between one man and one woman. The secular States want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of coexistence, spurred by the need to regulate economic aspects between persons as, for instance, to ensure healthcare. Each case must be looked at and evaluated in its diversity.”

Some journalists and bloggers have reported on this statement as a ringing endorsement of civil unions.  For example, The Huffington Post reported the story:

“Pope Francis has signalled that he could see the Catholic church tolerating some forms of same-sex civil unions — though not marriage — when it comes to situations such as medical care and property for gay couples.”

And Catholic News Service stated:

“Bishops around the world have differed in their responses to civil recognition of nonmarital unions. The president of the Pontifical Council for the Family said in February 2013 that some legal arrangements are justifiable to protect the inheritance rights of nonmarried couples. But until now, no pope has indicated even tentative acceptance of civil unions.”

While true that no pope has made such a statement, further information indicates that he was not referring to same-sex civil unions.  CNN reported that the Vatican press office provided additional information which indicates that the pope was not referring to same-sex couples:

“Later on Wednesday, a Vatican spokesman sought to clarify the Pope’s remarks.

” ‘The Pope did not choose to enter into debates about the delicate matter of gay civil unions,’ said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a consultant to the Vatican press office.

” ‘In his response to the interviewer, he emphasized the natural characteristic of marriage between one man and one woman, and on the other hand, he also spoke about the obligation of the state to fulfill its responsibilities towards its citizens.’

” ‘We should not try to read more into the Pope’s words than what has been stated in very general terms,’ Rosica added.”

Rosica also noted:

“By responding in this way, Pope Francis spoke in very general terms, and did not specifically refer to same-sex marriage as a civil union. Pope Francis simply stated the issues and did not interfere with positions held by Episcopal Conferences in various countries dealing with the question of civil unions and same sex marriage.”

While I don’t always trust “clarifications” made later by spokespeople, in this case, there was a certain amount of ambiguity in the original remarks that warrant such a follow-up. First, since the pope prefaced his comments about civil unions with a statement supporting matrimony as a heterosexual institution.  So, it can seem that his support for civil unions was a support for same-sex couples.

Second, as an email correspondent has informed me, the Italian term the pope used, “unioni civili” refers to “people who are married by the state, outside of a religious context,” not to same-sex partnerships.

While I would be delighted if the pope expressed support for same-sex civil unions (and marriage, for that matter!), I’m not sure that he has done that in this interview.  As has been noted before, he did support civil unions for same-sex couples when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  Many other bishops, cardinals, and Vatican officials have also expressed support for same-sex civil unions over the past year or so.

Pope Francis certainly has gone further than any previous pope in trying to be positive towards people whose relationships are outside of the traditional heterosexual, nuclear family model, and he is to be commended for that.  More importantly, even though he did not offer a ringing endorsement of same-sex relationships, at least he is not spouting condemnatory tirades against them as his two previous predecessors did.   His refreshing new attitude still offers great hope for possibility and change in the future.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

dotCommonweal:  Francis Hints About Same-Sex Civil Unions

Slate.comDoes Pope Francis Support Gay Civil Unions?

National Catholic Reporter: Francis marks anniversary with interview on sex abuse, women, contraception

QueeringTheChurch.com:  Pope Francis Has NOT “Supported” Civil Unions – but Catholic Thinking Continues to Evolve

Advocate.com: Pope Francis Says Church Must Examine Civil Unions

Sydney Morning Herald: Pope Francis hints at Catholic Church rethink on gay civil unions


A Handful of American Clergy Release Synod Survey Results

March 6, 2014

Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, FL

Bishops conferences from Germany to Japan are releasing reports on their surveying and consultation in preparation for this fall’s Synod on Marriage and Family Life. The opinions expressed, which reflect strong disagreement by the laity with regard to church teaching, are not a surprise to many.  What is news, however, is that we are finally hearing bishops acknowledge that much of the laity have rejected the hierarchy’s teachings on sexuality and marriage.

Absent from these recent reports was anything from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which left it to individual dioceses to collect information as they deemed appropriate. Most bishops chose to consult clergy and diocesan offices, but not even all did that much.

At least two prelates, Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg and Bishop David O’Connell of Trenton, have released statements on diocesan survey results. In addition, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston spoke about the survey at a press conference. Perhaps most interesting are the responses one anonymous priest wrote which Religion News Service published.

Lynch was among the handful of American bishops actively seeking lay input for the survey. Writing on his blog, the bishop summarizes the 6,800 responses he received, and blames a “too short” timeline for hindering more outreach. Of the results, Lynch writes that they are largely from Catholics attending Mass each week and “do not represent the feelings of those who have fallen away from the practice of their faith, are angry or frustrated or feel alienated by the Church. How I wish I could have heard from them as well.” Regarding LGBT matters, Lynch continues:

“1. There was very strong support for the notion that marriage (which I believe they understood as sacramental marriage) is between one man and one woman.

“2. Having said that, it was also clear that the respondents felt that the Church needed to be better prepared to respond to the reality of same-sex marriage.  In addition, many respondents felt that the people involved in such relationships believe that the Church has turned its back on them.

“3. The respondents generally tended to suggest that the Church needed to be kinder and gentler to those who identify themselves as gay and lesbian, be less judgmental and more welcoming.

“4. Very clearly stated was the opinion that an adopted child of same-sex parents should be treated in the Church exactly the same as a child born of a traditional marriage between a man and a woman.”

These results mimic the findings from other surveys, and Lynch admits changes that are perhaps necessary must come from the universal church. Yet, what makes Lynch’s post most interesting is the pastoral initiatives he promises:

“I have made it known that I will not tolerate any discrimination or anything which smacks of the punitive to children of same-sex couples. I think all representatives of the Church’s many ministries can be kinder, gentler, more welcoming and less judgmental of those who find our praxis and preaching on marriage and family life to be at odds with their experiences…

“Finally, if the ‘choir’ is singing this anthem, imagine what we might have heard had we had the time and access to those alienated, fallen-away, hurt or frustrated. Pope Francis’ call to hightail it to the trenches, to the difficult and smelly parts of the people of God to bring the love and hope of Jesus Christ is not only a call to serve the economically impoverished but the spiritually impoverished, so often of our own making.”

Bishop David O’Connell of Trenton

In New Jersey, Bishop O’Connell included survey results in his  “State of the Diocese” report, which had been released on the diocesan website. 1,007 responses were received, mostly from lay people who were predominantly women and married. Unlike Lynch, O’Connell spent several paragraphs discrediting the respondents as lacking in knowledge of Church teaching and providing misguided responses. On LGBT matters, he writes:

“Similarly, a significant number of respondents raised questions about the Church’s position on same sex marriage, many expressing sympathy for those with a homosexual orientation…

“Although the task of reading the voluminous pages of responses to the questionnaire was arduous, it did provide a snapshot — albeit very small — into some of the trends in Catholic thinking.  What impact the questionnaire will have on the extraordinary synod itself remains to be seen.  As Bishop, I did feel that I should offer some sense of the information gleaned from my review.”

Further downplaying the synod and the survey is Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston who is also the vice-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In his own archdiocese, responses to the survey posted online were limited, and he only reached out to established councils for input. DiNardo claimed marriage equality was not an issue Catholics in his diocese would like discussed.  Additionally, there was not strong support for reforming the teachings on divorced and remarried Catholics. National Catholic Reporter reports further on the cardinal’s attempts to curb expectations for the synod:

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston

“Asked if knew how the Vatican synod office would deal with the responses to the questionnaire from the world’s bishops, said to number in the tens of thousands of pages, DiNardo said he did not know.

” ‘I’m looking at just what we sent in, and I’m saying you multiply that by 180 dioceses in the United States, I don’t know what they’re going to do…Even if they summarized everything [by country] and sent it over, there are 152 countries.’ “

These prelates are simply admitting what most American Catholics believe about LGBT people and their relationships. Most interesting are responses published by Mark Silk of Religion News Service of an anonymous American priest, which are worth a read in their entirety. Below are a sampling of these responses, with questions included:

“b) In those cases where the Church’s teaching is known, is it accepted fully or are there difficulties in putting it into practice? If so, what are they?

“Yes there are difficulties. From Humanae Vitae forward, one driving principle behind these teachings seems to be an argument from authority. The Church says it, you must believe it, that settles it. Any questioning – even by people of faith and sufficient scholarly credentials and long years of service to the Church – has been seen as some sort of disloyalty or bad faith. However, arguments framed with this authoritarian bent may produce little formal push-back but rather create indifference even from devout Catholics…Credible teaching has to be open to question and must offer cogent and defensible reasons in order to be taken seriously…

“a) What place does the idea of the natural law have in the cultural areas of society: in institutions, education, academic circles and among the people at large? What anthropological ideas underlie the discussion on the natural basis of the family?

“It is hard to define the term ‘natural law’ as understood by the church. Any exploration of the historical origin of this term and its use by Catholic theologians runs into serious problems. It relies heavily on an outdated and factually erroneous understanding of the nature of reality – which is dynamic, not static. ‘Truth’ has evolved, it is not ‘perennial.’ Only God’s love is constant. Church teachings have changed and must continue to change in order for the message of Jesus Christ to make sense to new generations.

“b) Is the idea of the natural law in the union between a man and a woman commonly accepted as such by the baptized in general?

“This is changing as acceptance of same-sex unions takes root in various global cultures. Natural law itself as understood by the church is not intelligible to anyone who has high school or college knowledge of physics, biology or human psychology…

“b) What is the attitude of the local and particular Churches towards both the State as the promoter of civil unions between persons of the same sex and the people involved in this type of union?

“Privately, among priests, religious and laity – compassion and understanding. Publicly, statements and actions that run the spectrum from the ridiculous to the scandalous. One cardinal attributes the ‘success’ of these laws to poor ‘marketing’ by the church. Another mean-spirited and theologically deficient bishop actually ‘exorcised’ the state legislature for passing a same-sex marriage bill. The Holy Father needs to extend some public discipline for statements and actions like these which seriously erode the already flagging credibility of the Catholic Church in the USA. To work against same sex marriage, church leaders have entered into ‘alliances’ with such groups as the Mormons, spent huge sums of diocesan money to alter political outcomes (i.e. state referenda), and even appointed a man of great insensitivity on this issue to head the cultural capital of Gay America: the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The cluelessness of the American hierarchy and their friends in the Vatican could not be more on display than it has been in these past few years over this issue…

“d) In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?

“The answer is clear cut: we care for the children, baptize them, love them, provide a community of caring and inclusion and try to approach the issue of their parents union with compassion, love, and respect.”

Several months remain before the Synod, and what impact these widespread consultations may have is unknown. However, we hope that bishops and clergy will respond like Bishop Lynch and begin immediately implementing pastoral changes to further create an LGBT-inclusive Church. You can read Bondings 2.0‘s continuing coverage of these results by typing ‘Synod’ in the Search box to the right.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related Articles

National Catholic Reporter, “Bishop: Synod questionnaire shows most reject teaching on contraceptives

National Catholic Reporter, “Studies of US Catholics Provide Insight on Synod Questions


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