What springs to mind when you hear the word “family”? If it’s vulnerability, humility, fidelity, unconditional love, selflessness, mutual support and respect, teaming up with others to support the community, and a welcome to children (in particular those with special needs) and LGBTQ members—and if it comes in many shapes and sizes, including same-sex couples—you have a highly placed ally in the Roman Catholic Church: Pope Francis.
These views did not suddenly come to light in the new documentary Francesco. According to both Francis and his old friend Yayo Grassi, a gay man, they date back to his public ministry in Argentina, which is to say that they hardly represent a sudden pivot in the face of pressure from the progressive church in the global North. Instead, they represent Francis’s encounters with real families of all kinds—including same-sex couples—who have tutored him in their concrete joys and struggles.
The comments also are not just a part of his private conversations. Neither are they unofficial, off-the-cuff remarks. A matter of official teaching, they infuse Francis’s 2016 exhortation Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love,” which emerged from the Synod on the Family. Amoris Laetitia’s whole point is to meet families where they are, in what Francis calls a mosaic of different circumstances: separated, widowed, divorced, remarried, single-parent, same-sex-partnered, married, or facing challenges of poverty, dislocation, and violence.
Francis acknowledges that Vatican documents typically focus on the “stereotype of the ideal family” (57), which tends to be presented as adhering to “black and white” rules about sacramental marriage (305) that “only lead people to feel judged and abandoned” by the Church (49). Instead, he wants to reflect on common experiences of all families, only some of which are built around sacramental marriage.
This shift of emphasis changes the game entirely. Instead of starting with the question, “what is a valid marriage?” he asks, “What is the core or essence of families?” For Francis, in the end, family comes down to love. Quoting the document that emerged from the 2015 Synod on Family, Francis argues that “the strength of the family lies in its capacity to love and to teach how to love….it can always grow, beginning in love” (53). He pins hope on the fact that “many families, which are far from considering themselves perfect, live in love, fulfill their calling and keep moving forward, even if they fall many times along the way” (57).
To be sure, Francis himself still swings back and forth between the language of mosaic and the language of “more” and “less” perfect adherence to the Church’s definition of marriage; Amoris Laetitia still views families built around heterosexual sacramental marriage as more complete, stable, and fulfilled than others. As Bondings 2.0 has already reported, Francis’s support of civil union laws and his insistence on the “right to a family” do nothing to alter this teaching.
Still, Francis’s recent comments on our need for family and his focus on love in Amoris Laetitia confirm many LGBTQ families’ choices of conscience and indicate a path to future change in teaching. What do sacramentally married families have that others lack, according to Francis? The pope affirms that both involve permanent commitment, selfless love, patience, community-mindedness, and often parenthood. Non-sacramental families would seem to lack only the grace of the sacrament.
But would they? Even St. Thomas Aquinas, the standard of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, insisted that anyone who truly desired baptism but died before they could be baptized received the “baptism of desire”—in effect, received the grace of baptism. Would God be so stingy with grace as to deny same-sex couples the grace of marriage, who publicly and enthusiastically take on all its burdens and joys? Francis says no: God’s grace also inspires “families who participate in the life of the Church in an incomplete manner” to love, do good, and be of service to others (291). Moreover, quoting Pope Paul VI, he adds that every family founded in a covenant of love “can become a light in the darkness of the world” (66).
In the end, Francis suggests that families are communities of intimate love that deserve encouragement and protection not because they are perfect but because they are human and seek the good. All families have much to learn, and all have much to teach. As I’ve noted in a previous Bondings 2.0 post, same-sex couples often do a better job of managing the concrete practicalities of relationship, such as lovingly sharing household work, than their heterosexual counterparts. The advantage imperfect same-sex couples may have over imperfect sacramentally married couples is that because there has been no ready-made template and little social support for their unions, they can’t avoid thoughtfully discussing what their commitment to family means and how they will show and sustain love.
As people who have spent our whole lives thinking about these questions, LGBTQ Catholics are particularly well positioned to engage in a conversation that begins with families rather than with marriage. And for once, we have a pope who seems to be listening.
—Cristina Traina, Fordham University, November 5, 2020