Cardinals, Bishops, and Other Catholic Church Leaders Who Have Made Positive Statements about Civil Unions, Same-Gender Relationships, and Marriage Equality
Compiled by Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
(updated January 10, 2018)
Since the end of 2011, the Catholic Church has witnessed a growing trend of Catholic leaders speaking out in support of same-gender relationships, civil unions, and marriage equality. These leaders have included members of the hierarchy (pope, cardinals, archbishops, bishops), as well as church leaders in prominent positions (scholars, theologians, pastoral ministers, educators).
Below is a running list of all the cases we have identified when a church leader has spoken out positively in regard to same-gender couples, legal protections, and marriage rights.
The list is organized in chronological order. Under each year, the list is divided into two sections: the first section identifies statements by members of the hierarchy; the second section identifies other church leaders.
This list does not include lay Catholics who are prominent in the secular world (e.g., lawmakers or journalists), but only those people with some sort of canonical (official) relationship to the Catholic Church institution or who are professionally involved in Catholic advocacy for LGBT people.
The links in each citation below will bring a reader to the blog posts concerning this individual or event. Blog posts contain links to primary news sources.
If you know of other cases, and can document them with a news report, please email this information to info@NewWaysMinistry.org.
Statement by Hierarchy
December: Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, head of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, supported the idea of civil unions, saying “We would want to emphasise that civil partnerships actually provide a structure in which people of the same sex who want a lifelong relationship [and] a lifelong partnership can find their place and protection and legal provision.” In a later explanation of his remarks, Nichols re-affirmed his support.
Statement by Non-Hierarchical Church Leaders
December: In an essay for EurekaStreet.com, Father Frank Brennan, SJ, professor of law at the Public Policy Institute of Australian Catholic University, argued that Catholic members of Australia’s parliament should support civil unions for same-sex couples.
Statements by Hierarchy
January: Bishop Paolo Urso of Ragusa, Italy affirms the idea of civil unions, saying “When two people, even if they’re the same sex, decide to live together, it’s important for the State to recognize this fact. But it must be called something different from marriage.”
March: New Hampshire’s Catholic Diocese of Manchester, which opposed marriage equality in the state, came out in support of civil unions as a way to forestall the extension of marriage rights.
March: During New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland, Australia’s Bishop Geoffrey Robinson calls for a total re-examination of the church’s sexual ethics.
March: Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Italy, stated in his book, Credere e Cognoscere (Faith and Understanding), that “I do not agree with the positions of those in the Church who takes issue with civil unions.”
April: Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, Austria, re-instates a parish council member after the local pastor dismissed the gay man because he has a male domestic partner.
May: Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Berlin, Germany, told a major Catholic conference “When two homosexuals take responsibility for one another, if they deal with each other in a faithful and long-term way, then you have to see it in the same way as heterosexual relationships.”
December: Bishop Giuseppe Fiorini Morosini of the Locri-Gerace diocese in Italy has written a letter to his parishes, stating “same-sex couples should have their civil rights recognized.” He also added: “However, same-sex couples are not families. We cannot give them the right to a regular marriage. . . .A marriage is a union between a man and a woman, but every couple should have civil rights.”
Statements by Hierarchy
January: The French bishops’ conference Family and Society Committee issue a document entitled “Expand Marriage to Persons of the Same Sex? Let’s Open the Debate!” in which they call for dialogue about same-sex relationships, offer respectful words for same-sex couples, and severely condemn homophobia.
February: In a document opposing a marriage equality bill in the United Kingdom, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales acknowledge: ‘We recognise that many same sex couples raise children in loving and caring homes…’
February: Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, discussed “cohabitation forms that do not constitute a family,” and he called for laws “to prevent injustice and make their life easier.”
February: Bishop Charles Scicluna, an auxiliary bishop from Malta, reprimanded a Catholic writer who negatively characterized lesbian and gay relationships as based on lust, saying that such an approach denies “the truth of what the Church teaches.”
March: The New York Times reports that newly-elected Pope Francis supported civil unions when he was an archbishop in Argentina.
April: In a television interview, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired Ordinary of Washington, DC, said he would have “no problem” with civil unions for lesbian and gay couples.
April: During a lecture, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna Austria, and at one time considered a papal candidate, endorses the idea of civil unions, saying: “There can be same-sex partnerships and they need respect, and even civil law protection. Yes, but please keep it away from the notion of marriage. Because the definition of marriage is the stable union between a man and a woman open to life. We should be clear about terms and respect the needs of people living in a partnership together. They deserve respect.”
April: Cardinal Ruben Salazar of Bogota, Colombia, and president of the Colombian Bishops’ Conference, argues that civil unions for same-gender couples is an alternative to granting them marriage: ““There can be no true marriage but between a man and a woman, and only on this basis can there be a real family. The other unions have a right to exist; no one can ask them not to exist, but they should not try to equate themselves with the family.”
April: In an interview, Archbishop Piero Marini, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, states: “In these discussions, it’s necessary, for instance, to recognize the union of persons of the same sex, because there are many couples that suffer because their civil rights aren’t recognized. What can’t be recognized is that this [union] is equivalent to marriage.”
May: Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, clarifies his February statement (see above), noting that it was not intended to support same-sex marriage. He continued to support civil unions, though, by adding: “I proposed what the church has maintained: it is a matter of [protecting] individual rights. Facing the explosion in various forms of living together today, I simply called on states to find solutions which help people and avoid abuses.”
June: Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia, who had previously called for a total re-thinking of Catholic teaching on sexuality, calls for a Third Vatican Council to discuss how to prevent sexual abuse in the church. Such a council would also include re-examining a number of other sexual and gender-oriented topics, as well, including same-gender relationships.
June: Two Belgian prelates support civil unions. Cardinal Godfried Daneels, retired archbishop of Brussells, was asked about civil unions in an interview and he responded: said Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Brussels said “About the fact that this should be legal, that it should be made legitimate through a law, about this the Church has nothing to say.” He also said that supporting same-gender relationships showed “more nuanced thinking about the person in their totality rather than being fixated on the moral principle.” Daneels’ statements were supported by his successor, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard.
October: Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops, announces an Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family, scheduled for October 2014. In an unprecedented move, he asks bishops around the globe to consult the laity on a wide range of topics concerning marriage and sexuality, including same-gender couples.
Statement by Non-Hierarchical Church Leaders
April: Addressing the news that France established marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples, Fr. Frederico Lombardi, the Vatican’s principal spokesperson, said that society should “clearly show that marriage between one/a man and one/a woman is a fundamental institution in the history of mankind. This does not mean that one cannot recognise in some way other forms of union between two persons.”
May: Fr. Michael Fallon, an Australian priest calls for “public celebration of committed love for homosexual couples. . . . [The public should offer] not just recognition, but joy, public joy in their communion with each other, that’s the least we can offer people.”
May: Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, defends Catholic support of marriage equality in a public debate with Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois.
June: Terence Weldon, who blogs at QueeringTheChurch.com, reflects on statistical evidence that Catholic lay people support same-gender couples, in a post entitled “Gay Marriage, Civil Unions, and the Church.”
June: Franciscan Father Daniel Horan, who blogs at DatingGod.com, responds to U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, stating: “Wednesday’s decisions, as best I can tell, affect no one for the worse. They do not threaten different-sex marriages. They do not ruin the foundations of our society. They do not do anything but provide another step to guarantee that all human beings have the right to be treated like other human beings in the United States. We’ve come as a society to recognize, oftentimes too slowly, the need for these legal protections with regard to sex, race, and now sexual orientation — all things inherent to a person and outside one’s control.”
June: Thomas Bushlack, a professor of moral theology at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota, responds to U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, stating: “Despite the plurality of voices within these theological debates, one thing seems certain: what was once taken as a commonplace definition of marriage as between one man and one woman can no longer be assumed.”
July: Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, pens an essay entitled “The Bishops Aren’t Happy, But the People in the Pews Are” for Advocate.com responding to U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.
July: Father Bert Thelen, a Jesuit for more than 45 years, resigns from the community and the priesthood, in part as “a protest against the social injustices and sinful exclusions perpetrated by a patriarchal church that refuses to consider ordination for women and marriage for same- sex couples …”
July: Fr. Frank Brennan, SJ, a professor of law at Australian Catholic University, argues for Catholic support of civil same-gender marriage. This is a development from his 2012 position when he advocated for civil unions.
August: In an essay in Commonweal magazine, Joseph Bottum, a conservative Catholic commentator, argues for legal recognition of same-gender marriage.
September: In St. Paul, Minnesota, Julie Sullivan, president of St. Thomas University, addresses the school’s faculty and mentions: “We are called to love and support everyone in our community regardless of their sexual orientation…And, I might add, regardless of the gender of their spouse.”
September: Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, pens an essay for The Huffington Post on “15 Years in the Lives of a Catholic Lesbian Couple.”
October: During a talk at a Pride celebration at Fairfield University, Connecticut, (a Jesuit campus), Religious Studies Department Chair Nancy DellaValle states the Church is “hard-pressed” in explaining why it will not allow same-gender couples to marry if marriage is the “blessed union of a couple.”
October: During Illinois’ marriage equality debate, Cristina Traina, a Northwestern University religion professor and a Catholic, pens an op-ed in The Chicago Tribune, debunking religious arguments against same-gender marriage.
November: Fr. Bill Kienneally, retired pastor of St. Gertrude Parish, Chicago, Illinois, writes a letter to the editor of a daily paper in which he states: “There are many gay and lesbian couples [in the parish], many of whom are doing their best to raise children as a family. I admire their constancy and care while they continue to belong to a church that ‘officially’ seems wrongheaded and bizarre in its resistance to legalization of same-sex marriage.”
Statements by Hierarchy
January: An autumn 2013 speech by Pope Francis to the Catholic Union of Superiors General is made public. In the speech the pope speaks of same-gender couples: “On an educational level, gay unions raise challenges for us today which for us are sometimes difficult to understand.” He also pondered: “How can we proclaim Christ to a generation that is changing? We must be careful not to administer a vaccine against faith to them.”
February: Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, Austria, calls for a re-thinking of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family, stating: “For the most part, the church approaches the [family] issue unhistorically. People have always lived together in various ways. And today, we in the church tacitly live with the fact that the majority of our young people, including those with close ties to the Catholic church, quite naturally live together. The simple fact is that the environment has changed.”
March: Pope Francis calls for individual case evaluation of civil unions, but the Vatican spokesperson denied he was speaking about same-gender couples.
March: Bishop Stephan Ackerman of Trier diocese, Germany, calls for rethinking of church’s sexual ethics, and says we cannot think of homosexuality as unnatural.
April: Archbishop Carlos Jose Ñáñez of Cordoba, Argentina, approves the Cathedral baptism of the daughter of a lesbian couple.
May: Bishop Nunzio Galantino, head of the Italian bishops’ conference, calls for dialogue “without any taboo” on, among other things, homosexuality
May: In an interview, Bishop Leonardo Steiner, secretary general of the Brazilian bishops’ conference, says that same-gender couples should have legal protections, stating: It’s important to understand unions of persons of the same sex. . . . It’s necessary to talk about the rights of ordinary life among persons of the same sex who decide to live together. They need a legal protection in society.
August: Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, a retired Brazilian archbishop and the former prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, called for greater openness on the issue of same-gender marriage, noting: “We must take care not to be raising questions as individuals, because it ends up creating more trouble to get a conclusion that is valid. I think we have to get together, listen to the people, those who are involved in the issue.”
September: Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston says that the recent trend of firing gay and lesbian people from Catholic jobs because they are in legal same-gender marriages “needs to be rectified.” Not all church jobs require church marriages, he added.
Statement by Non-Hierarchical Church Leaders
January: German theologians call on church leaders to rethink sexual theology, focusing on the fragility and marriage and the personal vulnerability of sex, not evaluation of individual sex acts.
March: Fr. Stephen Geofroy of the island nation of Trinidad, speaks publicly in support of civil rights for lesbian and gay people, stating: “We are citizens of a country and people have the right to love who they want irrespective.”
April: Lisa Fullam, a professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, California, publishes an essay entitled “Civil Same-Sex Marriage: A Catholic Affirmation.”
April: The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales writes to Parliament to ask them not to change all civil partnerships to marriages. In their discussion, the bishops note that many lesbian and gay couples “. . . have entered into civil partnerships in order to secure important and necessary legal rights. . . ”
May: A draft document from the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales which instructs Catholic organizations how to conform to the United Kingdom’s Equality Act of 2010 is made public. The document observes: “Treating a same sex married couple less favourably than an opposite sex married couple will amount to direct discrimination. Therefore it is not possible to argue that such behaviour is a proportionate means to a legitimate aim, . . . and as such will be unlawful unless it falls within the exceptions out-lined. . . ”
June: England’s Cardinal Vincent Nichols states in an address: “A fundamental aspect of the Church’s teaching about sex is that sexual acts must always take place within the context of authentic freedom.” What is significant here is that Nichols substitutes “authentic freedom” for “Christian marriage,” which is the usual way that bishops describe the required moral context of sexual acts. This substitution echoes contemporary theological understandings of sexuality, such as the framework developed by Sister Margaret Farley, RSM.
Statements by Hierarchy
January: After marriage equality became a reality in Florida, Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg took a decidedly welcoming approach to the decision even though he disagreed with it. He said, in part: “I do not wish to lend our voice to notions which might suggest that same-sex couples are a threat incapable of sharing relationships marked by love and holiness and, thus, incapable of contributing to the edification of both the church and the wider society. In the midst of changing societal definitions and understandings of marriage, there may no doubt be some confusion. However, with patience and humility, our church must continuously strive to discover what the spirit is saying and respond to the Synod Fathers’ suggestion to discern what pastoral response faithful to church teaching and marked by respect and sensitivity might be appropriate for same-sex couples, even as God’s creative designs for and the church’s sacramental understanding of marriage are affirmed.”
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and a member of Pope Francis’ council of cardinal advisers, said in an interview that the Church needs to base its sexual ethics on a theory of right relationship, rather than on the morality of particular sexual acts:
“When speaking about sexual ethics, perhaps we must not begin with sleeping together, but with love, fidelity and the search for a life-long relationship. I am astonished that most of our young people, and also Catholic homosexuals who are practicing, want a relationship that lasts forever. The doctrine of the church is not so strange for people. It is true.”
June: After a statement expressing a desire for government to preserve a unique status for heterosexual married couples, Bishop McElroy of San Diego stated:
“The Catholic community of San Diego and Imperial counties will continue to honor and embody the uniqueness of marriage between one man and one woman as a gift from God- -in our teaching, our sacramental life and our witness to the world. We will do so in a manner which profoundly respects at every moment the loving and familial relationships which enrich the lives of so many gay men and women who are our sons and daughters, our sisters and brothers, and ultimately our fellow pilgrims on this earthly journey of life. And commanded by the Gospel of Jesus Christ we will continue to reach out to families of every kind who are encountering poverty, addictions, violence, emotional stress or the threat of deportation, and to attempt to bring them faith and care, service and solidarity.”
Archbishop Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago commented on what Catholic bishops should have said about the court’s marriage equality decision:
“. . . [T]he United States Supreme Court has ruled that two persons of the same sex have a constitutional right to marry each other. In doing so, the Court has re-defined civil marriage. The proposed reason for the ruling is the protection of equal rights for all citizens, including those who identify themselves as gay. The rapid social changes signaled by the Court ruling call us to mature and serene reflections as we move forward together. In that process, the Catholic Church will stand ready to offer a wisdom rooted in faith and a wide range of human experience.
“It is important to note that the Catholic Church has an abiding concern for the dignity of gay persons. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: ‘They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.’ (n. 2358). This respect must be real, not rhetorical, and ever reflective of the Church’s commitment to accompanying all people. For this reason, the Church must extend support to all families, no matter their circumstances, recognizing that we are all relatives, journeying through life under the careful watch of a loving God.
Statement by Non-Hierarchical Church Leaders
January: Fr. Martin Dolan, the longtime pastor of St. Nicholas of Myra Church in Dublin, Ireland, came out as gay in his homily, telling Catholics to vote for same-gender marriage equality in Ireland’s upcoming referendum.
“‘It is possible to have deep and passionately-held convictions without seeking to have those convictions imposed by the State on fellow citizens who do not share them…respect for the freedom of others who differ from us is part and parcel of the faith we profess. For these and for other reasons I will be voting Yes.’”
April: Dominican Fr. Mark Montebello blessed rings at a commitment ceremony between two men, Nicholas John Vella and Edward Borg Bonaci.
Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SL, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, visited Catholic LGBT organizations in Ireland during that nation’s marriage equality debate. In an interview with The Independent, she commented on the upcoming referendum:
“You can be a Catholic and vote for civil marriage for lesbian and gay people because it is a civil matter – it has nothing to do with your religion.”
June: Lisa Fullam, Associate Professor of Moral Theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, analyzed Obergefell v. Hodges stating:
“Perhaps a good first step for Church leaders would be to applaud the Court’s decision in light of its overlap with Catholic values regarding marriage. Of course, the Church may still refuse to marry lesbian and gay couples, just as it refuses to marry anyone with an un-annulled previous marriage. In time, I trust that Church teaching on sacramental marriage will evolve, too, and take note of the powerful spirit of love and commitment vivifying lesbian and gay marriages as well as straight marriages.
“But in the meantime, please, please, let’s stand with the Court and celebrate the equal human dignity of ALL God’s children.” (From a Commonweal magazine blog post) [Read Professor Fullam’s article, “Civil Same-Sex Marriage: A Catholic Affirmation,” published on Bondings 2.0 on April 15, 2014.]
July: Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, commented on Obergefell v. Hodges, stating:
“With the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage throughout the United States, the U.S. Catholic bishops need a new strategy going forward. The bishops’ fight against gay marriage has been a waste of time and money. The bishops should get a new set of priorities and a new set of lawyers…. It is time for the U.S. bishops to pivot to the public policy priorities articulated by Pope Francis: care for the poor and the environment and the promotion of peace and interreligious harmony. Their fanatical opposition to the legalization of gay marriage has made young people look on the church as a bigoted institution with which they do not want to be associated. As pastors, they should be talking more about God’s compassion and love rather than trying to regulate people’s sexual conduct through laws.
Andrew Sullivan, one of the first people to propose the idea of gay marriage as a serious legal possibility (and certainly the first Catholic pundit to do so), provided a poignant brief memoir of the struggle to arrive at the Obergefell v. Hodges victory:
“For many years, it felt like one step forward, two steps back. History is a miasma of contingency, and courage, and conviction, and chance.”
“But some things you know deep in your heart: that all human beings are made in the image of God; that their loves and lives are equally precious; that the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence has no meaning if it does not include the right to marry the person you love; and has no force if it denies that fundamental human freedom to a portion of its citizens. In the words of Hannah Arendt:”
“‘The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which “the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one’s skin or color or race” are minor indeed. Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs.”‘”
“may, in fact, make things better, not only for LGBT couples, but also for our society…. The whole society benefits from more stable and committed relationships. Everyone benefits when people have clearer legal rights and responsibilities. Same-sex marriage does not erode the meaning of sacramental marriage. In fact, it is a tip of the hat in respect for it because it seeks a parallel institution.”
Statements by Non-Hierarchical Church Leaders
April: Fr. Paul Fitzgerald, SJ, president of the University of San Francisco, welcomed news that women’s basketball coach Jennifer Azzi and assistant coach Blair Hardiek were married to each other. He had not previously known about their relationship, but said:
“Coach Azzi has entered into a civil marriage according to the laws of the land. . .We will afford her every benefit and legal protection which she is due. The university is a Catholic Jesuit institution that is purposefully diverse and dedicated to inclusivity.”