Archbishop Responding to Pope’s Civil Union Support: It Begins with the Human Person

Archbishop Paul Etienne

A U.S. archbishop has responded to the pope’s support for civil unions recognizing same-gender couples in a more positive way, suggesting Francis’ approach begins with the human person, not church teaching. But not all church leaders have responded similarly.

Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle published a blog post on October 27 about some “important facts to keep in mind,” though claiming he had not seen “exactly what our Holy Father said.” Etienne writes:

“When the Holy Father speaks and or teaches, he is almost always speaking to the Universal Church. The United States already recognizes civil unions of same-sex couples, who are able to marry and receive all the legal protections which that guarantees. However, in many other parts of the world, people with same-sex attraction face considerable oppression, including in some countries, death. . .

“The Holy Father is calling us as Church, as he has on numerous other occasions, to begin with the human person. Catechesis is important, but not the starting point. Building relationships comes first, then instruction, conversion, and integrating the faith ever more deeply into one’s life. In a real way he is challenging the Church to expand the tent.”

While reaffirming Pope Francis’ commitment to a heteronormative understanding of marriage, Etienne suggests that by supporting civil unions, the pope is making a distinction between church teaching and public policy. All of this, the archbishop writes, is to help be a church that is “willing to overcome insecurity, fear, and a willingness to reject others.” In other words, “a Church that attracts and welcomes others with the love of Christ.”

In the Philippines, Bishop Virgilio David of Kalookan offered a statement on behalf of nation’s episcopal conference as its president. David suggested Pope Francis acted like Jesus by associating with those considered sinners but refraining from judgement. The bishop wrote extensively about how Francis has engaged with lesbian and gay people, as well as his call for human fraternity in Fratelli Tutti:

“This is how we understand what Pope Francis doing. He is not out to destroy our morals and orthodoxy. He just wants to do as Jesus himself did. He valued being kind and compassionate more than being right and righteous.”

But not all church leaders have evaluated the pope’s comments positively. Bishops, episcopal conferences, and priests globally have continued to issue more negative responses to the pope’s comments.

In Canada, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa encouraged the pope to clarify what he meant, saying “the fact of the matter is, it’s caused confusion.” He argued for a moderate approach, suggesting the pope’s comments were neither “a bold new move” nor “heretical.” Prendergast continued:

“‘If I said something that my people misunderstood or were taking wrongly, I would try to correct it. But the Pope doesn’t have that approach. He’s a very independent person and he’s very charismatic, in a certain sense, and that’s both his strength and, for us, sometimes his weakness. . .

“‘It’s a puzzling issue, but the fact of the matter is, the fact that it’s stirred things up, is what I have to deal with. I have to deal with both things, right? I have to deal with the fact that he said it, but secondly, also, our people are confused. What do we say, what do we do?'”

In Spain, the secretary for the bishops’ conference there, Bishop Luis Argüello, auxiliary of Valladolid, tweeted that support for the pope’s comments was actually “clericalist” and that marriage exclusively for heterosexual couples was “common sense.” Novena News reported:

“Argüello later followed up on those comments with a letter to the priests of the Valladolid archdiocese, in which the bishop split hairs to claim that the Pope, in the documentary, was referring only to ‘civil coexistence’ and not civil unions, and was referring only to gay peoples’ families of origin, and not to ‘a new family based on the relationship of two people of the same sex’.”

In Poland, the nation’s episcopal conference pleaded ignorance, reported NBC News:

“‘We are not able to decipher the context of these words, which could be very significant, in order to understand them correctly,’ adding the pope’s words were not part of Church doctrine.”

In Grenada, Bishop Clyde Harvey of St. George’s doubled down that church teaching had not changed and “Francis never intends to change it,” but is focused rather on pastoral care, according to Loop News.

In the U.S., the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston issued a statement that included sentiments from what some have called the Vatican’s explainer issued last week.

Etienne’s statement rises above those of other church leaders in its recognition that papal support for LGBTQ protections has an impact beyond just civil unions, especially in the 70-plus nations that still criminalize homosexuality. Second, the archbishop, like the pope, seemingly draws a distinction between public policy and church teaching. He rejects the idea these are synonymous. Imagine the impact over the last decade if U.S. bishops at large had taken such an approach to marriage equality debates. For the bishops who still seem confused, perhaps a glance at Archbishop Etienne’s blog would be helpful clarification.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 7, 2020

1 reply
  1. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    It is interesting to note that all of those in the hierarchy of the Church who find Pope Francis being more more open to same sex love and indeed loving to all of God’s family a confusing situation or not what he said are like the Pharisees before Christ – afraid of abandoning a wall of defenses between them and us. They say surely the Pope doesn’t want us to love in a boundless way; even though that is what Christ called us to do. Those who call for obedience to the Magisterium whenever they can seem to forget they are part of that chain of command and when the Pope speaks of loving more generously it doesn’t take a book to do what is said. The Inquisition did many evil things, but sometimes I can see where a modern version guided by Vatican II and an honest reading of the Gospel might be useful to enforce some honorable changes.

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