The Good and the Bad of Pope Francis’ Support for Civil Unions

Today’s post is from Lisa Fullam, D.V.M., Th.D. Lisa teaches moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, California.  For Lisa’s full bio, including her publications, click here. For previous reports and commentaries on Pope Francis’ support for civil unions, see the bottom of this post.

Pope Francis’ recent statement supporting civil unions for lesbian and gay couples is good news and bad news. Good news first: it is important to recognize the positive value of any supportive statement from the pope, especially in the context of rigidly hostile official teaching. For example, Francis’ comments stand in stark contrast to then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2003 statement from his post as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Unions,” which concluded:

“11. The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society. Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity.”

One fear was that recognition of civil unions for same-sex couples might lead people to think that marriage might be acceptable, too. Here the Pope Emeritus addresses legal unions as distinguished from legal marriage: “5. In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty.” Francis’ opposition to Benedict XVI’s earlier pronouncement is a welcome change from Francis’ general tendency to bow to papal precedent, as he does, e.g., with regard to ordaining women as priests.

Moreover, the pope’s statement of encouragement for legal civil unions could very well have a great impact in parts of the world where same-sex relationships are criminalized. In predominantly Catholic nations where homophobia is the law, this statement could undercut anti-gay legislation, and perhaps even lead to its repeal. That would be a great good.

What’s the bad news? First, papal commentary, however welcome, is not the same thing as papal teaching in a higher-authority official document. It is not enough for Francis to remark in a way that is inconsistent with previous official teaching; in order for official teaching to change, it must be made in an official teaching document. A papal interview carries very little doctrinal heft.

Second, I fear that this might be a way for the magisterium to duck the actual question of support for same-sex relationships by relegating it to the civil sphere. While civil unions might be seen as a half-way step to civil marriage (though some LGB people disagree), the Church does not have a category for civil unions, or civil marriage, for that matter.  By relegating same-sex Catholic marriages to the civil sphere, Church leadership is offering them only a place outside the sacramental life of the Church. As Andrew Sullivan commented regarding civil unions enacted to stave off civil marriage equality: “‘Separate but equal’ was a failed and pernicious policy with regard to race; it will be a failed and pernicious policy with regard to sexual orientation.”

What is at stake in marriage equality is not merely a question of whether a marriage happens in church or at city hall. It is a question of the fundamental equal dignity of gay and lesbian Catholics in the Church. Here’s hoping Francis can come to understand that, especially in light of this promising first step.

Lisa Fullam, Santa Clara University, October 22, 2020

Bondings 2.0’s Coverage of Pope Francis & Civil Unions

October 21, 2020: “New Ways Ministry Praises Pope’s Support for Civil Unions, Seeks Same Recognition in Church

October 22, 2020: “In New Film, Pope Francis Declares Support for Civil Unions to Protect LGBTQ Families

October 22, 2020: “The Good and the Bad of Pope Francis’ Support for Civil Unions

October 23, 2020: “LGBTQ and Catholic Advocates Worldwide Praise Pope Francis’ Support for Civil Unions

October 24, 2020: “Exuberant Praise for Pope Francis from One Bishop, But from Others, Not So Much

October 26, 2020: “While Some Continue to Laud Pope’s Support for Civil Unions, Others Have a Different View

October 27, 2020: “Fr. James Alison: Support for Civil Unions Reveals Deeper Truth About Pope Francis

4 replies
    DON SIEGAL says:

    The Good and the Bad of Pope Francis’ Support for Civil Unions

    To be sure, it is good that Pope Francis said what he did in the interview. It is also important to note that the interview was conducted in Spanish with all the implications and nuances of regional differences in the meaning of the words in different Spanish speaking nations—in Francis’ case, presumably Argentina.

    There is no mention of how same sex couples who have legally availed themselves of marriage in those countries that have marriage equality should be treated. To suggest a civil union for them would be ludicrous.

    Regardless of the unofficial nature of Francis’ words relative to official Church teaching, I would say: Too little, too late. At the same time, it is still welcoming to hear Francis’ words of belonging.

  2. Paula Ruddy
    Paula Ruddy says:

    Thank you, Lisa. I am with you that not recognizing the sacramental dimension of same-sex unions denies the equal dignity of gay and lesbian people. What I am wondering though is how the Pope or anyone else can now continue to say that “homosexual activity” is “intrinsically disordered” if they approve of civil legislation protecting it. I thought they couldn’t tolerate a government’s enabling of intrinsic evil. Instead of dodging around verbally for another 100 years, I wish the magisterium would clear up the whole teaching on sexuality and on the relationship between morality and law.

  3. Jeff Jackson
    Jeff Jackson says:

    I hope the Pope’s opposition to marriage equality (via support of separate Civil Unions) does not inadvertently enable US Supreme Court Justices (or others around the world) to argue against marriage equality based on the protection of religious freedom. We certainly don’t want to take two steps backward where marriage equality is already the law.

  4. Terrance Wagner
    Terrance Wagner says:

    Thank you Lisa. I am a big fan of the Jesuits. It has been a while, but I thought I heard you speak somewhere. I am married to my long time partner Tom of 34 yrs, now 6 yrs. I am a Sacristan at my parish in Naples, FL The Catholic church does not recognize those married married by a judge is that considered a civil union. Thank you again for an excellent article. We now have Francis of Rome, much like the Francis of Assisi who sorta defied the pope at that time and went to Egypt to meet with the Sultan of Egypt to save lives. I love them both


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