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Pope Francis backs civil unions for gay couples, in shift for Vatican

Pope Francis backs civil unions for gay couples, in shift for Vatican

The Wall Street Journal
October 22, 2020

Pope Francis at a ceremony for peace with representatives from various religions in Campidoglio Square in Rome this week. Picture: AFP

Pope Francis endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples, in a move that is likely to intensify the already heated controversy over the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on homosexuality.

The pope's words, though not part of his official teaching, are likely to put pressure on Catholic bishops in the developing world to tolerate legal recognition of same-sex unions and oppose anti-homosexuality laws.

In Europe, North America and other Western countries, too, it is expected to have an impact on the cultural wars over sexuality within the church and beyond.

"Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They're children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it," Pope Francis said in a new documentary film, Francesco, which premiered at the Rome Film Festival this week, according to the Catholic News Agency and other outlets.

"What we have to create is a civil-union law. That way they are legally covered," the pope said, according to CNA. "I stood up for that."

Since his remarks were not delivered in a sermon or a Vatican document, they don't constitute official papal teaching.

Pope Francis has been notable for his conciliatory approach to gay people. The most famous words of his pontificate are his 2013 statement about gay priests: "Who am I to judge?"

At the same time, the pope has rejected the possibility of same-sex marriage. In a 2016 document, he wrote that "there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family". Earlier, when the pope was archbishop of Buenos Aires as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he described same-sex marriage as an "anthropological regression". But in a 2014 interview, about a year after his election as pope, he suggested that the Catholic Church could tolerate some form of civil unions for same-sex couples.

"Matrimony is between a man and a woman," the pope said, but moves to "regulate diverse situations of cohabitation (are) driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care."

Asked how the church should respond, he replied: "It is necessary to look at the diverse cases and evaluate them in their variety."

During his time as archbishop, the future pope reportedly supported civil unions as an alternative to same-sex marriage, according to his biographer Austen Ivereigh. The country legalised same-sex marriage in 2010.

The Vatican's position on civil unions has until now been set forth in a 2003 document by the doctrinal office, then led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. According to that document, "respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions".

The Holy See Press Office did not respond to a request for comment.

"Pope Francis's support for same-sex civil unions is a major step forward in the church's support of LGBTQ people...and sends a strong signal to countries where the church has opposed such laws," tweeted the Reverend James Martin, author of Building a Bridge, a book about the church's relationship with gay Catholics, who was received in a private audience by the pope last year.

African Catholic bishops have emerged as a prominent conservative bloc on family issues within the church, strongly opposing the liberalisation of doctrine on homosexuality. They also have protested what they say is pressure from rich countries and international organisations to repeal harsh anti-homosexuality laws in some African countries.

Pope Francis' statement could lend support to gay activists in Poland, where the country's Catholic bishops recently called for clinics to help LGBT people "regain their sexual health and natural sexual orientation".

"It's not a change in teaching but a change in approach," said Father Martin in an interview. "It will be a lot harder for bishops to say that the Catholic Church believes that same-sex civil unions are a threat when you have the pope saying he supports them."

Conservatives expressed dismay.

"The Holy Father's apparent support for the recognition of civil unions for same-sex couples needs to be clarified. The pope's statement clearly contradicts what has been the longstanding teaching of the Church," Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, in the US state of Rhode Island, a vocal conservative, said in a statement.

The Reverend Gerald Murray, pastor of Holy Family Church in New York and a frequent commentator on EWTN Catholic television, said he expected other bishops and cardinals would weigh in for against the statement, exacerbating divisions in the church.

"Pope Francis has overstepped his bounds," Father Murray said, noting that the pope's statement that "homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family" could be read as an endorsement of adoption by gay couples, which the church has opposed.

"He is confusing yet again, not only people outside the church but people inside the church, about what church doctrine is," said Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington and editor of the Catholic Thing website.

"Now anyone can tell a bishop who is trying to put forward Catholic teaching that your own pope disagrees with you."


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