Vatican Clarification on Pope’s Civil Union Endorsement Changes Little and Causes Confusion

A letter reportedly from the Vatican has attempted to clarify Pope Francis’ recent reiterated support for civil unions recognizing same-gender couples. The distribution of the letter, however, is clouded in confusion, and, the end result is that the pope’s stated support for civil unions still stands.

The Associated Press reported that a letter was sent from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State to apostolic nuncios worldwide regarding the pope’s comments. Archbishop Franco Coppola, the nuncio to Mexico, posted the letter on Facebook this past Sunday (and Austin Ivereigh, a journalist and biographer of Francis, tweeted the letter, too).

The Vatican letter addresses comments by the pope released as part of a new documentary, Francesco. The comments in the film were drawn from a previous 2019 television interview. (For Bondings 2.0’s analysis of the debate over these comments, click here.) Crux reported further on the letter to the nuncios:

“Although several bishops’ conferences have confirmed receiving the letter, it was unsigned and was not printed on official letterhead, which officials in these bishops’ conferences found strange for a document from the Secretariat of State.

“It is unknown who ordered the letter to be written, who sent it, if Pope Francis is aware, and if, as the letter claims, it was in fact the pope who asked that a clarification be made.”

Novena News published its English translation of the letter, originally made public in Spanish. The Vatican officials intended to provide “a proper understanding of the words of the Holy Father.” The letter reads, in part:

“More than a year ago, during an interview, Pope Francis answered two different questions at two different times which, in the above-mentioned documentary, were edited and published as a single answer without due contextualisation, which has generated confusion.

“The Holy Father had first made a pastoral reference to the necessity that, within the family, the son or daughter with a homosexual orientation should never be discriminated against.

“They are the ones to whom the words refer: ‘Homosexual persons have the right to be in the family; they are children of God, they have the right to a family. No one can be thrown out of the family or life be made impossible for them’.

The letter then cites paragraph 250 of the pope’s 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which references lesbian and gay people within families. The letter continues:

“A subsequent question in the interview in contrast was in reference to a local law of ten years ago in Argentina on ‘marriage equality of couples of the same sex’ and the opposition of the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires to the same.

“In this regard, Pope Francis stated that ‘it is incongruous to speak of homosexual marriage’, adding that, in the same context, he had spoken of the right of these people to have some legal coverage: ‘what we have to do is a civil union law; they have the right to be legally covered. I defended that’.

“The Holy Father had expressed himself as follows during an interview in 2014:

“‘Marriage is between a man and a woman. Secular States want to justify civil unions in order to regulate various situations of cohabitation, driven by the demand to regulate economic aspects between people, such as ensuring health care. These are different kinds of cohabitation agreements, of which I would not know how to give a list of the different forms. It is necessary to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety’.

“It is therefore clear that Pope Francis has referred to particular arrangements of the State [and] certainly not to the doctrine of the Church, which has been reaffirmed many times over the years.”

Vatican officials have frequently issued such “clarifications” after Pope Francis’ comments in interviews, press conferences, or appearances, especially when his message is progressive. What is different in this case, though, is that the clarification comes unsigned and without official letterhead.

More importantly, we must ask: Does this letter change anything, however?

Not really. Pope Francis clearly believes, as he has stated repeatedly, that marriage is to be understood solely as a heterosexual union. No clarification was needed there. And, despite attempts by conservatives and bureaucrats to muddy the waters, even in this “clarification,” it remains clear that the pope supports same-gender couples having civil protections. Further, his support directly contradicts the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2003 document that insists “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead. . .to legal recognition of homosexual unions.” While it is true the pope did not issue a document overriding this policy, to insist the church changes only through documents issued is not a complete picture.

New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo commented:

“Rather than reversing or correcting the pope’s stated support for civil unions, this letter seems designed more to be talking points for church leaders who are questioned about the pope’s remarks. Bishops and other Catholic leaders around the world have been at pains to try explain papal support for civil unions. This letter, sent only to nuncios, who are the Vatican’s ambassadors, seems to be a guide to how to diplomatically respond to inquiries from the faithful and from journalists about the pope’s remarks.”

In the end, no matter how many attempts Vatican officials make to “contextualize” the pope’s statements, the undeniable fact is that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church has stated his belief that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people in committed relationships have certain civil rights the church can support. That truth cannot be clarified away.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 3, 2020

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