Does Pope Francis’ Civil Union Support “Ring Hollow” or Is It a “Significant Step”?

Mary Hunt

Commentaries on Pope Francis’ remarks last month that reiterated his support for same-gender civil unions have continued to be published. Today’s post features a handful of them with links provided for further reading.

Theologian Mary Hunt of WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual), wrote in Religion Dispatches that she highly recommends the film, Francesco, in which the pope’s comments premiered, and that it is helpful context for interpreting Francis’ words. But, given then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s endorsement of civil unions in Argentina during that nation’s marriage equality debate came only after calling marriage equality “destructive attack on God’s plan” and implying it came from the devil, Hunt asserts “the current statement on civil unions is hardly a ringing papal endorsement of same-sex anything.” Her essay points to several other historical considerations, but one conclusion is this:

“. . .[T]he Pope’s words on civil unions, however well-meaning beyond an instrumentalist way of keeping the queer devil at bay, ring hollow. In light of his fulsome calls for world peace, an end to nuclear weapons and the death penalty, economic equality, and a halt to genocide, it’s odd and disappointing that he cannot gird up his cassock and find the gumption to affirm relational equality and justice. Doing so could lend credence to his other justice stances.

“Theology is data-driven. On civil unions, responses to a few dozen papal words have been more a Rorschach test of people’s views than a clear reading of what Francis meant. Some have condemned his comments. But many hopes and dreams of a welcoming church are generously attributed to a few short sentences. The people’s views are an important data point in the creation of a robust theology of love, regardless of what any pope says.”

Barbara Gonzalez

Barbara Gonzalez, a queer woman raised an active Catholic, wrote a commentary for Refinery 29 that acknowledged the power behind Pope Francis’ statement, “not only as the head of the Catholic church, but as an Argentinian man” because of the homophobia and transphobia sometimes present in Latinx communities. For Gonzalez, the pope’s words both come too late for  her personally, and yet she writes they are still relevant more widely:

“After graduating [Catholic] high school, I made the decision that the Catholic church wasn’t somewhere I felt welcome due to its homophobic teachings, history of colonizing and murdering native people, rampant corruption, and more. . .This isn’t to say that I don’t believe in a higher power. I still pray pretty regularly, radiating positive energy out to my loved ones, colleagues, and strangers. I even still call the entity I pray to God. But religion, for right now, just doesn’t serve me the same way that it used to. . .

“While it’s not for me, I still understand that it’s an important intersecting identity for many Latinx folks. According to a Pew Research Center Study, 83% of Latinx people claim a religious affiliation, with 62% of them identifying as Catholic. I was proud to see that this same study showed that nearly 60% believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society. And here’s the thing: We need that 60% to be more vocal in their communities and truly serve as allies for us in the church. . .

“[T]he church is so much more than people like Pope Francis, the archbishops, or anyone else who has authority in the religion. Church is also about the people you see every week that you serve and pray in community with. These are the people we need to be in conversation with in order to create environments where pro-LGBTQ+ parishes can thrive.”

Jason Steidl

Jason Steidl, a theologian writing in the National Catholic Reporter, argues against the many commentaries that make it seem that “the survival of queer folks appears to depend on what comes out of [Pope Francis’] mouth.” He explains that “the perennial brouhaha around Francis’s public statements on LGBTQ issues, whether from progressive or traditionalist quarters, strikes me as wrongheaded and dangerous for a number of reasons.” Indeed, “It is a fool’s errand to place our hope in Pope Francis.”

First among Steidl’s reasons is that “it obscures Francis’ own track record on LGBTQ issues.” (For a full chronology of Pope Francis’ actions and statements on LGBTQ issues, click here.) Second, “an obsessive focus on Francis turns our attention away from the rest of the church,” from issues like clericalism and the “struggles that grassroots LGBTQ Catholics face showing up to Mass every Sunday.” Steidl continues:

“A third reason stems from my own experience as a gay Catholic. For years, I have struggled to love and accept myself as much as I trust that God loves and accepts me. For the most part, church teaching and bishops’ rhetoric have been a hindrance, rather than a help, to my pursuit of spiritual and sexual wholeness.

“Over time, however, I have discovered and taken back the power that I once gave them to define my sexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered.’ Oppressive religious authorities cannot stop me from experiencing the love and holiness of intimate same-sex relationships. Church leaders have no power to revoke the God-given dignity that I possess.”

Julie Hanlon Rubio

Julie Hanlon Rubio, a theologian writing for The Conversation, suggests the pope’s support for civil unions is altering how Francis understands family, in keeping with the church’s evolving understanding of family for decades. For instance, Rubio notes how much Vatican II shifted and enriched Catholic conceptions of family beyond just warning against ills, such as divorce and cohabitation. She writes:

“Francis’ critics worry that the pope is watering down Catholic doctrine on marriage and family. But what I argue is that Francis is not changing doctrine. He is encouraging a broader view of who counts as families inside and outside the church. . .

“The comments in the documentary show a persistent move toward welcoming families in contemporary Catholic thought. Francis proposes that a welcoming church should support all families, especially those who are hurting. Similarly, as he says, governments should do the same – including supporting gay and lesbian couples.”

Fr. Tomáš Halík

[Editor’s Note: For an analysis of some of Pope Francis’ theology of family, click here.]

Fr. Tomáš Halík, a Czech scholar in philosophy and sociology, writes that Francis speaks like “a normal person of the 21st century,” and  Katholisch.de reported his further comments:

“‘This Pope does not change written norms, he does not destroy external structures – but he changes practice, life. He does not transform the church from the outside, but much more thoroughly: spiritually, from within…'”

“Halík describes the magisterial teaching on homosexuality as ‘inconsistent compromise positions’ which ‘belong to those “canned goods” whose best-before date has long expired’. Beyond this topic, the theologian criticizes a not ‘small part of Christians’ who today have ‘such an emptied positive content of faith’ ‘for building their ‘”Christian identity” on a “culture war”, on a war against condoms, against abortion, against partnerships of homosexuals ‘.”

Alphonso David

Fr. James Martin, SJ, co-wrote a piece for Religion News Service with Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David in which they called the pope’s support “a significant step.” They comment:

“Many LGBTQ people today would agree with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous comment that civil unions are nothing more than a ‘skim milk’ version of marriage. But, though small, this step by the pope helps to establish common ground between the LGBTQ movement and the church, however tenuous. . .

“Francis’ most recent statement may mark a moment for all faith leaders and people of faith to further reflect on how their own actions are advancing — or working against — greater progress and inclusion.”

For Bondings 2.0’s ongoing coverage of reactions to Pope Francis’ civil union remarks, click here

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 9, 2020

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