In Civil Unions Support, Pope Francis Avoids Judgement Many Seek, Leaves Catholics to Discern

Austin Ivereigh with Pope Francis

Journalist and papal biographer Austin Ivereigh thinks the way to interpret Pope Francis’ remarks supportive of same-gender civil unions is that the pope has once again refrained from judging and left the faithful to discern how to proceed.

In Commonweal, Ivereigh credits the pope with trying to allow the Holy Spirit into the church so it can discern God’s call beyond rigid practices and teachings. The writer examines a bit of the pope’s history with the issue of civil unions:

“This was exactly what Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio sought to do in 2010, when the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires was faced with Latin America’s first ‘equal marriage’ law. President Néstor Kirchner had never shown any interest in gay rights before this point, but was unable to resist a chance to score a political point against the Church. Calculating that the bishops would, as always, defend Catholic doctrine upholding marriage as a uniquely heterosexual, procreative institution, and condemn its redefinition in civil law, Kirchner saw an easy way to clothe himself in the mantle of progressive, egalitarian, pro-justice politics while framing the Church as bent on imposing its morality on civil law. It was playbook politics.

“But Bergoglio was not so easily framed. Hearing the stories and knowing the plight of many gay people, he had had many years to consider the need for the state to offer legal protection and support for long-term cohabiting couples. . .

“That is why, shortly after being named archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio raised no objection to a 2002 civil-union law passed by the city government that granted certain rights—to be treated as family, for example, in the event of one partner being hospitalized—to any couple cohabiting for more than two years. Bergoglio saw it as a matter of justice that did not impinge on marriage.”

But, in Ivereigh’s telling, the Vatican’s 2003 denunciation of legal recognition for same-gender couples “drastically reduced” the space for a “nuanced response” to marriage equality efforts. Indeed, at the Vatican, “Bergoglio’s failure to condemn the 2002 Buenos Aires legislation had been duly noted and deplored.” Ivereigh continues,” the sole concern of the CDF [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] was to provide a battery of weapons with which to defend traditional marriage.” But, Ivereigh claims, this insistence on denying any legal rights to same-gender couples backfired and transformed civil union campaigns to full marriage equality ones. After all this complexity, the takeaways is that the now-pope stands by his position in Argentina, which is what his most recent comments professes.

Ivereigh also looks at some of the controversies and alleged confusions with the documentary Francesco in which Francis’ civil unions comment appeared, and he concludes:

“The answers will no doubt dribble out over time. But for now, what matters is that Francis has said what he thinks on the issue, which is the fruit of a longstanding discernment. As usual, it is hard for many to swallow. . .

“Isn’t it ironic? From all sides what Catholics seem to want is for the pope to judge gay people and their relationships—to condemn their sex as immoral, or to declare it innocent—while what the pope tries to do is follow Jesus into realities that demand responses that are not about judgement, norms, and law. He goes to the pain and needs of gay people and of others left outside the Christian understanding of marriage. And from there he asks: What does God want? What does their dignity call for? What elements of good are there—love, self-sacrifice—that the law must respect and encourage?

“Not in some great teaching document, but in a dialogue with a journalist, he unfurls his answer, one he reached long ago as an archbishop in Buenos Aires. He got to it after asking how the Church might offer ‘the experience of the Lord’s living, kindly and active presence’ to people in need. To a world that demands judgment, it is dissatisfying. But it’s what Jesus asked of his followers when he purified them.”

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 12, 2020

Related Commentaries on Bondings 2.0

Patrick Hornbeck, “Why Pope Francis Was Missing From the Fulton Case

Cristina Traina, “Pope Francis’ Theology of Family and Marriage Shows His Support for Civil Unions

Robert Shine, “Vatican Clarification on Pope’s Civil Union Endorsement Changes Little and Causes Confusion

Robert Shine, “What Comes Next After Pope Francis’ Reiterated Support for Civil Unions?

Lisa Fullam, “The Good and the Bad of Pope Francis’ Support for Civil Unions

3 replies
  1. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    The Church’s position on LGBT issues is fraught with missteps, double speak and a lack of clarity. It could be that Francis is the closest we’ll ever get to real dialogue abd acceptance.

  2. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    Pope Francis’ support for civil unions in the midst of a terrible anti LGBTQ teaching history reminds me of St. Paul’s “exhort with every kind of teaching” in the non condemnatory stance of Jesus. We are not called to a binary choice of pro or con LGBTQ realities but a Gospel call to live out our Baptism in conscience no matter if our lives are popular with the institutional Church or not. “Exhort with every kind of teaching” by our lives well lived in conscience and standing on our own two feet. With this stance shall we triumph as loved and love- LGBTQ People of God.

  3. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    I find your insights, Robert, intriguing and spot on. In short, my take away from your editorial is the black/white, my way or your way, either for or against can be fruitless as each side digs in. Francis, on the other hand, does neither and that is the genius, or should I say, the loving stance. Brilliant. I like it!


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