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Francis Hints About Same-Sex Civil Unions

In the same Corriere della Sera/La Nación interview referenced in Mollie's post below, Francis struck an ambiguous note on the topic of same-sex civil unions. Here's NCR's Joshua McElwee:

Asked about same-sex marriage, he responds: "Marriage is between a man and a woman."

"The secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of living together, driven by the need to regulate economic aspects between people, like ensuring health care," he states, saying he can't identify the ways different countries are addressing the matter.

"We need to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety," he states.

HuffPo reports on the same interview, including a brief overview of the good news and the not-so-good news from Francis on civil unions:

While he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2010 and Argentina was on the brink of legalizing gay marriage, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio support legalizing civil unions as a compromise. He also called same-sex marriage “an attempt to destroy God’s plan” and said gay adoption was a kind of discrimination against children. LGBT rights organizations and gay Catholics have hailed Francis' for making more positive statements on gay people during his papacy.


The Pope makes the essential distinction between civil law and moral norms, pointing to the role of the state in legislating for the common good, not legislating the moral law of the Church in its entirety. This distinction isn't new-fangled, but is clear in the work of Thomas Aquinas, among others. Previous magisterial considerations of legalizing same-sex relationships have seemed to define marriage's social good entirely in procreative terms. Here's one example:

The inevitable consequence of legal recognition of homosexual unions would be the redefinition of marriage, which would become, in its legal status, an institution devoid of essential reference to factors linked to heterosexuality; for example, procreation and raising children. 

That document mentions both civil unions and same-sex marriage, and then-Cardinal Ratzinger roundly condemned both.

Where's the ambiguity in Francis' statement? When asked about same-sex marriage, he reaffirmed that marriage is for straight people only, and made no distinction between civil marriage and marriage in the Church. His comments about evaluating civil union proposals "in their variety" may or may not indicate a willingness to consider same-sex unions that grant rights equivalent to marriage. In other words, is the comment on civil unions part of a response on the question of same-sex unions, or a related-but-different riff on society's role in regulating how the law recognizes people who cohabit whether in sexual relationships or non-sexual relationships? (Tyler Lopez over at Slate insists that the Pope doesn't intend any new approaches to same-sex unions: "Don’t be fooled. Francis is not the first pro-gay pope.")

Even if he does want to open the question of same-sex relationships, it seems to me that the civil unions ship has sailed, at least in the US. By popular vote, legislative action and judicial decree, states are recognizing that civil marriage is a matter of civil rights. A "separate-but-equal" civil union for same-sex couples, while straights get to call themselves "married" has no future in civil law. Meanwhile, the USCCB is doubling down, its subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage expressing its support of a proposed constitutional amendment limiting marriage to straight people.  

In a steady increase over the past decade or so, 55% of American Catholics now support gay marriage. A recent Univision poll found a similar level of support for same-sex marriage in the US, and also support in Spain, while the other 10 of 12 nations surveyed report opposition. And there's a strong generational tide at work, too, with young Catholics in favor 18 percentage points more than older Catholics.

Opinion polls don't determine doctrine. They do show the extent to which Catholics are convinced by the Church's argumentation on matters of civil marriage, though. This comes at a time when assorted bishops are calling for a reassessment of Catholic sexual teaching generally, in light of large-scale non-reception of the current teaching. (Here's one recent example.)

What next? At some point, Pope Francis is going to have to settle some of the questions he's raised, whether that of how to enhance women's authority in the Church without ordaining them or that of where he stands now on same-sex civil marriage. Until then, perhaps the best thing Catholics can do is to continue to talk about the matters the Pope raises. With any luck, the surveys on sexual teachings will be the occasion for the fundamental reexamination of sexual teachings, or at least how they're communicated to the faithful.

But the time's short--young people are leaving the Church at an alarming rate, often driven out by what they see as inhospitable teachings. Unlike the response to Humanae Vitae, essentially wide-spread "dissent in place" as Catholics rejected the teaching but continued to practice their faith otherwise, questions of same-sex marriage are public. Interesting times... 



About the Author

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).



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Even the Vatican document condemning legal recognition of gay marriage and civil unions does have a little passage about the State's toleration of such unions, which is not to be confused with positive approbrate. I speak from memory because I have no wish to waste time reading that dismal document again. Francis is saying that the church will not accept gay marriage or unions, but that it is not the church's business to tell the state how to handle legal issues.

With his inadequate reaction to the abuse scandal and his being charged with involvement in child trafficking, is the knell of Francis's popularity about to sound? 

I reccently read "The Pope and Mussolini" and, while welcoming contrary opinions about Pius XI and XII, foound it quite damning in multipple ways. I am trying to think about how the lack of their speaking out and the various alliances at that time affected millions and world history. One cannot easily second-guess that era, but this seems likea critical point in history regarding appreciation of homosexual attraction,expression, and commitment and the world is sharply divided in ways that we in the US only see the top of the iceberg.

Pope Francis has to address the wider dimensions of the topic of sexuality and human rights with more than his welcome calls for respect and care and justice for the materially poor and disenfranchised. Unfortunately, the American bishops show abysmal leadership in any of this.

Lent begins on a hard note...

On behalf of the Vatican, Fr. Thomas Rosica  yesterday released a statement, regarding certain interpretations of the interview, that contains a severe mistake.

 Rosica states :

-It is important to understand here that “civil unions” in Italy refer to people who are married by the state, outside of a religious context-

 I’m Italian woman so I can say that this is false. In Italy we say  civil MARRIAGES when we want to refer to people married by the state and of course we have already  this . Now the new prime minister, Renzi  want introduce in Italy civil unions  that refer to people that don’t want or cannot ( as gay people) marry.


I didn't read Francis' comments to oppose Civil marriage/unions.  I think he is trying to thread the needle here and say in effect that a sacremental marriage is between a male and female but he won't oppose a same sex union which is authorized by civil authorities.  In effect he is drawing a distinction between marriage and other unions which are not marriage in the sacremental sense, regarless of what you call them.  That is really not so far away from current doctrine as it applies to Catholic marriages at least.  Civil marriages/unions can occur between Catholics but they aren't considered valid without meeting certain conditions.  This is quite a different view from Archbishop Lori and his ilk, I think, though no doubt he and his band will double down on opposing all things gay.

David - would suggest that the history of Pius XI and fascism, etc. is complicated.

Here is one such element:

If this encyclical had been promulgated after his death - it might have set a foundation that would have challenged both Nazism and Mussolini.


- The draft text condemned antisemitism, racism and the persecution of Jews

Here is another element:

America magazine also has an interesting article about Pope's comments on homosexuality, and about the process by which the Church should consider the issue in general:

Let's look at the semantics of the marriage/civil union problem.  What is agreed upon:  everybody agrees we're talking about some serious, committed, full unions of body an soul of two adults.  What is the crux of the matter as far as the Church is concerned?  That gays can't produce children in such unions.

The Church is saying that the union of man and woman, oriented as it is beyond the union of man and wife to children as well, is intrinsically different from a same-sex union.  And I think that the Church is making an important point when it says that -- it says that because children are also the point of that union that it is similar but not the same in an important way. 

So let's make "marriage" signify how both sorts of unions are *alike*, and let's have "matrimony" signify unions of male an female which includes their personal committment but also their committment to children.  It's already been pointed out that that is the de facto meaning of "marriage" today in the USA -- it does not imply a committment to having children.  Reserve the term "matrimony" for the unions oriented towards children.

True, some gays adopt children.  The question then becomes:  are they "matrimonied"? I say, why not?  Until you show that gay parents are worse than non-gay ones, I don't see why a difference is involved in those cases.  OK, so it's been shown that it's significantly better for kids to have two parents than just a single one, but that doesn't prove that they  have to be of opposite sexes. 

There was a podcast and article a little while ago about the book on the pope and Mussolini - pretty interesting  .... ... it reminded me of an article I had seen some time ago in The Guardian ...

Bill C - thank you for that link to the John P Langan SJ article in America Magazine.  Charitable and generous in tone, realistic and optimistic in what is possible, and a good deal of wisdom.  Our leaders would be well-advised to read it and take it to heart.



Although the article is entitled "See the Person," I am not convinced that this treatment -even though it has some admirable qualities - really does that.  Still seems like trying to fit human sexual attraction, expression, and commitment into categories that need deeper and more personal appreciation. 

Ann O. has it right!  Her last statement of "OK, so it's been shown that it's significantly better for kids to have two parents than just a single one, but that doesn't prove that they have to be of opposite sexes" is a change .... I think .... in here prior position.

It's time for the Vatican to clarify --- or make a distinction in the first place --- between marriage and matrimony.  The first is the rightful prerogative of the State, the second of the Church.  Mary, thank you for noting Pastor Rosica's erroneous statement.

I think if we approach marriage as a public institution, which it is,  then the question for civil society is can you deny access to that institution to people on the grounds of their sexual orientation. I think the answer to that question is not.

Whether religious bodies acknowledge civil marriages as sacramental or valid according to their particularly criteria is a different matter altogether and is something that they can determine for themselves.

But the church has not jurisdiction over that institution in the civil sphere.

Thanks, BIll. I've read "The Pope's Last Crusade," "Hitler's Pope," and a few other books on this on this conflicted period... fascinating and at times extremely depressing in seeing the powers at play in the papacy. Still, I am struck by the complexities of this period and any learnings for us.  

Jim McC. --


Whether or not same sex spouses should have the legal right to adopt hinges, I think, on the now independent legal issues of marriage and adoption (marriage no longer legally implies the likelihood of children).  True, the research so far has been about the advantages for the child of two-parents over one parent, not the advantages of straight over gay.


I say that unless gay parents are shown to be on average *worse* than married or single ones are on average, then the sexual orientation should play no part in deciding who may adopt.  And it certainly hasn't been shown that the gays are worse, though no doubt there are people who disagree regardless of the lack of much scientific data so far.


Further, if a country has an excess of adoptable children, I think the only question should be:  is an adoptable child likely to be better off remaining in an institution or being adopted, regardless of sexual orientation of the parent(s)? 


The State doesn't require straight parents to be optimum parents to adopt, so why should gay and single people be required to be the best parents possible? 


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