Recent comments by a Vatican spokesperson are prompting many LGBT Catholic advocates to cautiously believe Rome is endorsing civil unions for same-gender couples, and some posit this shifting position is a result of lay pressure which could have concrete benefits.
According to Queering the Church, Jesuit Fr. Frederico Lombardi, the Vatican’s spokeperson, endorsed civil unions while speaking about the passage of marriage equality in France last week. Translations differ, as the original source for his comments is in Italian, but Terence Weldon provides this:
“[When] we then asked him for his evaluation of the final parliamentary approval by the French National Assembly of the anthropological revolution in the family sphere, Father Lombardi said ‘it is a good thing for a child to know it has a father and a mother’: one has to ‘clearly show that marriage between one/a man and one/a woman is a fundamental institution in the history of mankind. This does not mean that one cannot recognise in some way other forms of union between two persons.'”
The implications of Fr. Lombardi’s comments could be wide-ranging, although Weldon and others urge caution, given how heavily qualified these remarks are. Weldon continues:
“Irrespective though, of this particular incident, it is clear that change is in the air. Fr Lombardi is of course not a bishop, but he is the official spokesman for the pope, and highly respected for the skill with which he conducts his task…His response to the question will be widely interpreted as reflecting the thinking of Pope Francis himself, and will encourage many more bishops who up to now have been supportive but unwilling to speak out publicly, to do so…
“Compared with the secular shift [towards full marriage equality], Catholic bishops’ thinking has been excruciatingly slow – but compared with its usual reluctance to adapt, this shift has been equally remarkable – and once again, is a response to changes in the real world political balance.”
Writing for the Equally Blessed coalition, Francis DeBernardo and Sr. Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry conclude all this glacial change is a result of lay leadership moving the church forward. In a piece in The Huffington Post,they recall that only a decade ago, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger declared there could be no legal recognition of same-gender couples. DeBernardo and Gramick continue:
“Faced with mounting evidence that the hierarchy is rapidly losing influence..some leading bishops are seeking to soften the hard line that Benedict XVI drew when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. Their argument…is that marriage, even civil marriage, must be defined as a relationship between one man and one woman, but that legal recognition of same-sex relationships is permissible or even desirable…
“Reform-minded Catholics are often told that the church is not a democracy. In the conventional political sense, that may be true. But the church ministers in democracies. And in country after country, Catholic voters have gone to the polls, ignored the often heavy-handed lobbying of their bishops, and voted in favor of marriage equality, or legislators who support marriage equality. They are changing the teachings of the church by changing the culture in which the church functions…
“The choice before our bishops now is whether to continue a divisive battle that will only diminish their own authority, or to follow where the laity has led.”
The implication of a softening approach to legal recognition of same-gender couples by the Vatican, and trickling down through the world’s bishops, could have concrete policy implications:
“If the pope adopted the position espoused by Schönborn and others, the Catholic hierarchy would have no reason to oppose including the same-sex partners of U. S. citizens among those who could be granted citizenship under the immigration bill about to come before the U. S. Senate. The hierarchy could support or remain neutral on legislation that extends to gay and lesbian couples legal protections and benefits that they are now denied in most states in this country. It could speak in less vitriolic terms about same-sex couples and their families, as the bishops of England and Wales did recently in acknowledging “that many same-sex couples raise children in loving and caring homes.”
Fr. Lombardi’s comments fit within an atmosphere of Catholic prelates endorsing civil unions, but how widespread and sustained this support will be remains an open question.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry