For the first time since Italy’s Parliament approved a civil unions bill for lesbian and gay couples two weeks ago, Pope Francis has commented about the issue of legally recognizing same-sex relationships.
In an interview with La Croix, a French newspaper, Pope Francis said that Catholic public officials should be excused from officiating at same-gender union ceremonies if they have a conscientious objection to such relationships. The following is an English version of the interview on the newspaper’s website:
“In a secular setting, how should Catholics defend their concerns on societal issues such as euthanasia or same-sex marriage?
“Pope Francis: It is up to Parliament to discuss, argue, explain, reason [these issues]. That is how a society grows.
“However, once a law has been adopted, the state must also respect [people’s] consciences. The right to conscientious objection must be recognized within each legal structure because it is a human right. Including for a government official, who is a human person. The state must also take criticism into account. That would be a genuine form of laicity.
“You cannot sweep aside the arguments of Catholics by simply telling them that they “speak like a priest.” No, they base themselves on the kind of Christian thinking that France has so remarkably developed.” [boldface emphasis is in the original text]
Pope Francis made similar remarks about the conscience decisions of government officials on his plane ride home from his U.S. visit in September 2015. The issue also came up during the same visit when the brouhaha developed over his unplanned and secretly orchestrated meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refuses to perform same-sex marriages.
Francis’ exhortation on conscience would ring truer if he would call on church officials to respect the consciences of LGBT people who have discovered that living in a committed same-gender relationship or transitioning to their true gender is the most authentic way to follow the call of God. They, too, should be welcomed into the Christian community, which unlike employment, is not simply an economic form of association.
News that Pope Francis will visit Ireland in 2018 for the World Meeting of Families, provides him a golden opportunity to meet with recently married Catholic gay and lesbian couples to learn of their experiences and of the formation of their own consciences. Such an encounter would surely prove educational for the pontiff, who has shown an un-pope-like curiosity to learn more about the real lives of people.
Such an education would also serve well for Cardinal Antonio Bagnasco, the president of the Italian bishops conference, who recently said that the civil unions bill equates gay and lesbian relationships with marriage. What the cardinal fails to recognize is that there is a great difference between the Italian civil unions law and marriage law, and that LGBT advocates, while glad for the civil unions bill, also lamented the fact that such unions were not on a par with marriage. Robert Mickens, a seasoned Vatican observer in Rome, noted in a Commonweal dispatch:
“. . . . [A]ctivists that have been fighting for civil unions, and especially those who continue to call for gay marriage, say the new law is far from satisfactory. They are upset that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi watered down the original bill to appease conservative members of parliament who closely follow the bishops’ directives.
“One of their biggest complaints is that a so-called ‘stepchild adoption’ clause, which would have allowed people in civil unions to adopt the biological child of their partner, is not in the new law. Family court judges will decide on a case-by-case basis.”
Francis’ call to conscience would also sound truer if he would begin a more honest and open conversation about sexuality in the Church. Mickens writes:
“The Italian hierarchy, which presides over a Church where every honest person knows a large percentage of the clergy are homosexually-oriented men, has done everything to perpetuate their country’s longstanding hypocrisy regarding gay people.
“Thanks to their efforts, especially to enforce deeply conservative views on family life in Italian society, many people in this country have been trapped into leading double lives. They get married, have children and some—some—secretly find sexual intimacy or a relationship with other people of their same sex. Or they join the ‘celibate’ priesthood and do the same.
“Italy’s new law has opened the door to a more honest conversation in a changing society. And hopefully it marks the beginning of the end of one of the great Italian hypocrisies.”
Yes, far from being the end of civilization, the marriage equality debates and laws have been an opportunity for people to live more authentically and freely.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry