Controversies Swirl Around Pope’s Support for Civil Unions, But Is There Really Much There?

This post is part of Bondings 2.0‘s ongoing coverage of Pope Francis’ support for civil unions that recognize same-gender couples and reactions to it. For previous reports and commentaries, see the bottom of this post.

Since news broke that a new documentary showed Pope Francis reiterating his support for same-gender civil unions, in this instance for the first time as pope, there have been controversies about what he actually meant and the origin of parts of the film itself.

Some of the controversies centered around a translation issues: was “convivencia civil,” the phrase used by Francis, a reference to legal civil unions or was it more a reference to simply civil coexistence? Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez of La Plata, Argentina, issued a Facebook post saying the pope used the Spanish term for civil unions specific to Argentina. That post, from Fernandez who is described by Crux as a “long-time protégé of the pope,” read in part:

“‘However, [Jorge] Bergoglio always recognized that, without calling it ‘marriage,’ there are in fact, very close unions between people of the same sex, which do not in themselves imply sexual relations, but a very intense and stable alliance. . .[These people] ‘know each other thoroughly, they share the same roof for many years, they take care of each other, they sacrifice for each other. . .Then it may happen that they prefer that in an extreme case or illness they do not consult their relatives, but that person who knows their intentions in depth. For the same reason they prefer that it be that person who inherits all their assets, etc. This can be contemplated in the law and is called “civil union”, or “law of civil coexistence”, not marriage.'”

Other controversies have involved how director Evgeny Afineevsky edited the footage in the Francesco. The National Catholic Reporter explained:

“In his documentary ‘Francesco,’ director Evgeny Afineevsky presented the statements [on lesbian and gay people and civil unions] as if Pope Francis had said them one right after the other; the director used the quotes immediately following a story about a gay couple with children.

“Released Oct. 21, the film gave some people the erroneous impression that Pope Francis approved civil union laws that would equate gay couples to married couples. Pope Francis consistently has said that gay people deserve love, respect and the protection of the law; however, he has insisted marriage can be only between a man and a woman.”

Of the footage, which was almost certainly drawn from a 2019 interview between the pope and journalist Valentina Alazraki of the Mexican news outlet Televisa, NCR reported:

“When the Vatican, which filmed the interview, gave Televisa the footage, the quotation about civil unions had been cut. . .

“The clips used in Afineevsky’s film put together quotes from three separate moments of the Televisa interview, so the pope appears to say: ‘They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it. What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.'”

What is clear is that Pope Francis’ remarks on lesbian and gay people, their families, marriage and civil unions, and more were more comprehensive in the original Mexican interview, and you can read about those details in NCR here. But the key part about civil unions reads in full:

“‘I’ve always defended doctrine. And it is curious about the law on homosexual marriage — it is a contradiction to speak of homosexual marriage. But what we have to create is a civil union law, that way they are legally covered. I defended that,’ he said, referring to his efforts to support an alternative to legalizing gay marriage that would still protect the rights of gay couples when it came to matters like inheritance, health care decisions and visitation when one is ill.”

Finally, a third controversy involved potential censorship of Pope Francis endorsing civil unions. As is often the case, that Televisa interview was filmed using Vatican cameras. The results are then shared with the media outlet, but neither the Televisa nor the Vatican editions of the interview with Alazraki included the civil union comments. Filmmaker Afineevsky found them in archival Vatican footage, to which he was granted wide access for the production of Francesco. So what happened? Crux reported:

“The Vatican refused to comment on whether it cut the remarks from its own broadcast or if the Mexican broadcaster that conducted the interview did. And it didn’t respond to questions about why it allowed the comments to be aired now in the documentary ‘Francesco,’ which premiered Wednesday. . .

“One of Francis’ top communications advisers, Father Antonio Spadaro, insisted the pope’s comments were old news, saying they were made during a May 2019 interview with Mexican broadcaster Televisa.

“‘There’s nothing new because it’s a part of that interview,’ Spadaro told The Associated Press as he exited the premiere. ‘It seems strange that you don’t remember.’ . . .

“Further muddying the waters is the fact that Afineevsky, when pressed by reporters late Wednesday, said the pope made the comments to him directly, through a translator, but declined to say when.”

What are Catholics to make of all these controversies? I offer a few points.

First, as with the translation question, some of these disputes are simply conservative efforts to “muddy the waters” about what seems quite clear given both Francis’ statement in the film and his previous history as archbishop of Buenos Aires: the pope supports unreservedly some sort of legal recognition to protect same-gender couples, as long as this recognition is not equivalent to marriage.

Second, much of this information seems to be Vatican “palace intrigue,” interesting only for those of us who closely follow Vatican politics. We may inquire as to how the clip was spliced in Afineevsky’s documentary or why the pope’s remarks were not aired originally on Televisa. It has been reported before that there are those in the Vatican bureaucracy who stridently oppose Francis, and since he cannot oversee everything, being censored by these functionaries in one of many interviews seems plausible.

But none of this changes the fact that the pope endorsed civil unions and it is publicly available on film for all to see or hear.  The positive understanding of his remarks which made headlines around the globe last week has not been altered by these new developments.

For the third takeaway, I turn to America‘s Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell who commented in his analysis:

“My years of experience covering the Vatican leads me to conclude that the press office has remained silent only because it knows that this is what the pope wants. . .Francis too has remained silent, as he has done on a few previous occasions when there was much controversy.”

That Pope Francis and the Vatican are not issuing a clarification may indeed be telling. They could just be letting the pope’s own words speak for him given that, for most people, his meaning is clear. But Commonweal’s Matthew Sitman noted thaat silence is an insufficient response in this case. He allowed that sometimes this pope is “initiating more than deciding,” prompting a fresh conversation rather than direct confrontation with enemies. Sitman then asked:

“Is that what’s happening now? Perhaps only Francis himself knows. If it is, this time the strategy is failing—even worse, it is the wrong strategy, a kind of category error. The problem is not only that it’s led to a media crisis; it’s created a moral crisis. Sometimes, ambiguity in the name of pastoral concern can be appropriate. . .But legal rights for LGBTQ people, including civil unions, are not about discerning their place in the Church. They are not about their spiritual condition. They are about their secular rights. They are about whether the God-given dignity of LGBTQ people deserves legal recognition, or not. They are about whether the abuse and persecution of vulnerable people is tolerated by their governments, or not. It is a yes or no question. Are the lives and loves of LGBTQ people worthy of state protection? There is no good reason for Francis to remain ambiguous about that. His words really do matter. He should use them again, and soon.”

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 28, 2020

Bondings 2.0’s Previous Coverage

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

October 27, 2020: “Archbishop Says Pope’s Civil Union Support a ‘Reality Check’; Mary McAleese Seeks Doctrinal Change

3 replies
    DON SIEGAL says:

    Controversies Swirl Around Pope’s Support for Civil Unions

    It was either a contributor or commenter in Bondings 2.0 coverage of Pope Francis’ support for civil union that said the one thing that will come from this is actual conversation. I firmly believe conversation is happening and that was the intent of the Holy Father when he made those statements.

    I also believe that he used the informal nature of an interview because he could express his personal feelings without regard to official Church teaching.

    Robert, your summary of this blog post, “What are Catholics to make of all these controversies?” is exactly correct.

  2. Dean Rosen
    Dean Rosen says:

    I think the movement for “marriage equality” was remiss in not differentiating holy matrimony from civil marriage. All marriage is civil. Holy matrimony is the sacrament administered by churches as they see fit. The pope can hold firm to the qualifications for holy matrimony if he saw more clearly that marriage is a civil relationship that can be entered into and dissolved by the government and not the church. Even Obama erred when he referred in 2012 to marriage as a sacrament. We need to differentiate those two institutions much more than we do at present.

    DON SIEGAL says:

    RE: The Sacramentality of Marriage

    It is accurate that marriage is first and foremost a civil institution to which the Church has added a sacramental dimension—especially the Roman Catholic Church. That is precisely why some Catholics—having no intention of leaving the Catholic Church—who enter into a same-sex marriage take advantage of the Christian hospitality of other Christian denominations (e.g. Episcopal or ELCA Lutheran) and get married in a church ceremony. For these Catholics, the sacramentality of their marriage is their faith. They do not believe that their marriage is in anyway second class to the marriages of their opposite sex sisters and brothers, and it isn’t. Their marriages are also the domestic church—the love of the couple for each other reflects the love of Jesus for his Church.


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