Pope Francis Supported Civil Unions While Archbishop

Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square during his Inaugural Mass

Earlier this week, Bondings 2.0 reported that Pope Francis’ record on marriage equality when he was archbishop in Argentina was not as clear as originally thought. Further revelations show that the new pope once supported civil unions, leading some Catholic observers to expect a different tone than his papal predecessor on LGBT issues.

Rachel Donadio writes in the New York Times about Pope Francis’ history on the issue of same-gender relationships’ legal recognition:

“But behind the scenes, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who led the public charge against the measure, spoke out in a heated meeting of bishops in 2010 and advocated a highly unorthodox solution: that the church in Argentina support the idea of civil unions for gay couples.

“The concession inflamed the gathering — and offers a telling insight into the leadership style he may now bring to the papacy…

“But as he faced one of the most acute tests of his tenure as head of Argentina’s church, he showed another side as well, supporters and critics say: that of a deal maker willing to compromise and court opposing sides in the debate, detractors included.”

Pope Francis’ proposal would lose to other Argentine bishops, but his actions upholding the hierarchy’s position while reaching out have won him both praise and criticism. Donadio continues:

“‘[Cardinal Bergoglio] listened to my views with a great deal of respect,’ said Marcelo Márquez, a gay rights leader and theologian who wrote a tough letter to Cardinal Bergoglio and, to his surprise, received a call from him less than an hour after it was delivered. ‘He told me that homosexuals need to have recognized rights and that he supported civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.’…

“‘The reality, beyond what he may have said in private meetings, was that he said some terrible things in public,’ said Esteban Paulón, president of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals. ‘He took a role, in public, that was determinedly combative.’…

“‘Bergoglio’s thinking was very clearly demonstrated both with what he said and in the message of his pastoral work,’ said Roxana Alfieri, a social worker in the communications department of the bishops’ central office here.

“‘He didn’t want the church to take a position of condemning people but rather of respect for their rights like any vulnerable person,’ said Ms. Alfieri, who sat in on the bishops’ 2010 meeting.”

The account by the New York Times has been endorsed by John Allen, Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter who summarizes an understanding of Pope Francis on marriage, as neither indicative of how he will act as pope nor revolutionary as prelates have been known to endorse alternative legal structures aside from marriage for same-gender couples. Allen writes:

“The pope has been a staunch opponent of gay marriage but open to legal arrangements to protect the rights of same-sex couples on matters such as health benefits and inheritance.

“It should be noted that this is hardly the first time a senior church official has said such a thing, though doing so generally invites a degree of blowback.”

All of this is a sign that Pope Francis may move the hierarchy forward on the issue of marriage equality, including Michael O’Loughlin of Religion News Service who writes:

“As pastor to the world’s Catholics, and a moral leader to many others, might Francis bring his pragmatic views on LGBT issues to the global stage? He is poised, if he so desires, to make huge advances for the church in how it treats its gay and lesbian members, all without engaging in the divisive doctrinal battles that would accompany an adjustment of church teaching on sexuality…

“No one expects him to usher in an era of liberalism on issues of sexuality, and he said some hurtful things during the marriage debate in Argentina. But Pope Francis seems capable of changing the tone the church employs in these emotional conversations…How he chooses to respond to the needs of LGBT people will solidify his reputation as a pastor who stands in solidarity with those whom society—and the church—has marginalized.”

Whether a history of dialogue and compromise on LGBT legal issues will transfer into his papacy remains to be seen, but Pope Francis is a much more complex figure for Catholics than his predecessors on these LGBT issues.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry