What Comes Next After Pope Francis’ Reiterated Support for Civil Unions?

Francis DeBernardo

Just under two weeks ago, Pope Francis reiterated his support for civil unions that recognize same-gender couples. Many LGBTQ Catholics and advocates have given the pope at least partial credit for his remarks, but almost all agree more progress is needed. (For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage, see the bottom of this post.)

So what impact could Francis’ support have in what comes next?

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, wrote two op-eds about the possibilities for the church. In Openly, an LGBTQ webiste operated by ThomsonReuters, DeBernardo provided human faces for the headline news by telling a poignant story of a gay couple, together for over 50 years, while one of them spent the majority of that time paralyzed in  a skilled care facility.  DeBernardo remarked how comforting the pope’s words would have been to them had they lived long enough to hear them.  He observed:

“Pope Francis’s support for legal protections for same-sex couples can’t change the past, but it will definitely have a great impact on the future. . . . .I’ve seen the power that a pope’s words have on the church’s atmosphere, policies, and pastoral practice. . . .

“Was the pope’s support all that I have hoped for? No, but it is a step in the right direction – and a big one at that! Change happens slowly in the church, and it happens step by step. . .”

In the National Catholic Reporter, DeBernardo offered more concrete ideas about how these steps might develop.  He called Pope Francis’ civil unions support as a “brand-new chapter in the Catholic Church’s discussion of LGBTQ issues,” adding:

“When a pope speaks, even non-doctrinally, he sends forth ripples that have an effect on how policy and pastoral ministry is carried out on all levels of the church. Francis’ latest words are more than a ripple: They are a tidal wave. . .

“Francis’ words may not have the force of doctrine, but they can be a major force in terms of church practice. Change in church doctrine is always proceeded by a change in practice. I’m hopeful that Pope Francis’ simple words will cause church practice to change in mighty and new ways.”

These improved practices include opposition to (or at least not supporting as some bishops do) the criminalization of homosexuality. They include not denying Communion to people in same-gender couples,  not firing church workers over their same-gender marriages. More positively, the pope’s supportcould lead to blessing same-gender couples in the church, a proposal German Catholics are discussing. And there are possible legal implications, too. On Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which is coming before the U.S. Supreme Court next month, DeBernardo comments:

“At the heart of this dispute is a Catholic adoption agency claiming, on the basis of its faith’s instructions, that they have the right to refuse to place children with legally married lesbian and gay couples. How will the agency, and so many others like it, defend such a position now that the pope has expressed a faith statement saying that these couples deserve respect, legal protection and the right to be a family? How will the Supreme Court justices perceive the plaintiff’s arguments that their opposition to these couples is based in Catholic principles when the pope himself is urging Catholics to support these same couples?”

Paul Elie

Paul Elie, a Catholic author, wrote in The New Yorker that whatever comes next will follow the pope’s incrementalist instincts. Elie opines that once the church begins to address gay people’s sexuality, many related questions will unravel, and he raises the potential for a new church council to address how the church understands the human person altogether. Elie then concludes:

“There are good reasons for him to act incrementally, and offhandedly, rather than directly. For one thing, his efforts to advance bold objectives through the formal structures of the papacy—on climate change, immigration, or income inequality—have met with something less than acclamation from the Catholic populace. For another, the Church’s understanding of L.G.B.T.Q. people can’t simply be changed by papal decree. The questions of human sexuality are no less complex than those of the economy or the environment. And it seems, on some level, that Francis’s strenuous efforts to address intractable global problems serve to draw attention away from the problem near at hand—namely, that, when it comes to sexuality, the Church’s account of the human person is as superannuated as trickle-down economics and coal-burning power plants. . .

“Meanwhile, his incrementalist approach makes sense only if he keeps Catholicism moving in the right direction, toward recognizing gay people in the ways that they recognize themselves. It may be stretching credulity to see his remarks in support of same-sex civil unions as a means to the eventual end of the full embrace of gay people. And yet they are a step of some kind, and it may be that Francis knows where he, and the Church, must go.”

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 2, 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

October 28, 2020: “Controversies Swirl Around Pope’s Support for Civil Unions, But Is There Really Much There?

October 29, 2020: “LGBTQ Catholics’ Reactions to Pope Francis’ Support for Civil Unions Are Mixed Bag

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