Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience at the Vatican, October 28, 2020 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

At a vast outdoor Mass in Medellín, Colombia, in September 2017, Pope Francis gave one of the best homilies of his pontificate: on how Jesus showed his first followers what it meant to do God’s will rather than stop at law and morality. It came to my mind, unbidden, as I observed the reaction to the pope’s firecracker comments on gay civil unions in the documentary Francesco. The connection will not appear obvious at first, but let me tease it out.

Jesus needed to “purify” his disciples, said Francis at Medellín’s Enrique Ayala airfield, because of the risk that “some of the precepts, prohibitions, and mandates” made them feel too secure; they no longer asked the “uncomfortable question” of what God wanted them to do. It’s a perennial temptation of religion, this wanting to hunker down in the safety of rules and rites, and so miss what matters. And it’s a bold religious leader—Jesus, Francis—who dares tackle it in their followers.

Jesus led his chosen ones out to the lepers, the paralytics, and the sinners, explained Francis, for these were realities that “demanded far more than a formula or established norm.” In so doing, Jesus taught that discipleship was not just explaining doctrines and modeling righteous conduct, but offering “the experience of the Lord’s living, kindly, and active presence, an ongoing learning through listening to His word.” That word, Francis added, was made known “in the concrete needs of our brothers and sisters.” By involving them intensely in the complex pastoral realities and human needs of the outcast, Jesus “shook” the disciples out of their rigidity. In the same way, Francis added, the Spirit shakes the Church out of its rigidity in order to better discern the Lord’s call.    

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. As Archbishop Víctor Manuel (“Tucho”) Fernández of La Plata recalled last week on his Facebook page, “Jorge Bergoglio always recognized that there exist very close de facto unions between people of the same sex, which do not imply per se sexual relations, but rather a very intense, stable alliance” characterized by care and self-sacrifice. And that it was possible to recognize this fact through a “civil union” or “civil cohabitation” law, while leaving marriage intact.

Bergoglio raised no objection to a 2002 civil-union law passed by the city government...he saw it as a matter of justice that did not impinge on marriage.

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. There was no right to adopt, and while such a law would clearly benefit same-sex couples, it did not single out those involved in gay sexual relationships. The law might apply equally to two widows who chose to care for each other, for example. Indeed, such legislation was justified not just because it avoided heartache for those involved but because it served the common good of social commitment and stability.           

The following year, however, the space for this kind of nuanced response to the demand for same-sex marriage was drastically reduced in Rome, where Bergoglio’s failure to condemn the 2002 Buenos Aires legislation had been duly noted and deplored. This was during John Paul II’s final years, and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was in full culture-war mode: any bid to give “homosexual unions legal equivalence to marriage properly so-called,” the CDF declared, was tantamount to the “legalization of evil.” Politicians needed to understand that any endorsement of civil unions for gay people was formal cooperation in “gravely unjust laws.”           

The CDF’s 2003 “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons,” signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, mostly summarized what Cardinal Bergoglio emphatically believed: same-sex marriage was an anthropological impossibility, because marriage was an inherently procreative, heterosexual institution founded on man-woman bonding and the raising of children by their natural parents in a stable, lifelong, sexually faithful union. To exclude same-sex couples from marriage was not, therefore, discrimination but appropriate differentiation; and further, to redefine marriage to accommodate other forms of partnership was to obviate the very reasons for legally privileging marriage in the first place.

But what the CDF 2003 statement wholly lacked was any consideration of the needs of non-marital couples. It appeared to find the very question offensive. The sole concern of the CDF was to provide a battery of weapons with which to defend traditional marriage. It was as if—to return to Francis’s Medellín homily—the “precepts, prohibitions, and mandates” of the Christian understanding of marriage had dispensed the Vatican from asking the “uncomfortable question” of what God might ask of them in response to people who live with and make sacrifices for another person, but don’t qualify—because of their sexual orientation or circumstances—for marriage.

Many bishops across Europe and the Western world strongly resented the CDF statement, not because they disagreed with its defense of marriage, but because its harsh language and reductionism tied their hands pastorally and strategically. If the Church was implacably opposed to any kind of legal recognition of same-sex unions, it could be dismissed as retrograde, homophobic, and unworthy of inclusion in any debate.

An example: the year after the CDF statement, the United Kingdom’s Labour Party introduced a civil-partnership bill that was originally conceived as a broad “cohabitation” bill, but under pressure from the gay-rights lobby was turned into gay marriage by another name—excluding, for example, sisters who had lived together all their lives. Effectively silenced by the CDF and pilloried as homophobic by the gay-rights lobby, the bishops of England and Wales were powerless to back those in the government who wanted a cohabitation bill. They were even more powerless in 2012 when a Conservative Party government legalized same-sex marriage.

This was also the experience of Argentina’s bishops when faced with the Kirchner same-sex marriage bill. As I wrote in The Great Reformer, Cardinal Bergoglio urged his fellow bishops to advocate for a civil-union bill, not just as a matter of justice but also to avoid falling into the trap Kirchner had set for them. Without the Church’s backing for such an alternative, he argued, they would play straight into the president’s hands, and in effect bring about the redefinition of marriage.

It was one of the very few times in his tenure as president of the bishops’ conference that Bergoglio lost a plenary vote. The conservatives pointed to the 2003 CDF document—signed by the man who was now pope—to argue that any such advocacy would undermine the witness to marriage. But Bergoglio’s warning was borne out by the ensuing events: the same-sex-marriage bill narrowly passed after a vicious debate in which Bergoglio and the Church were pilloried as obscurantist and discriminatory.      

In Francesco, Francis says that, “What we need to have is a civil-cohabitation law [una ley de convivencia civil]” because same-sex couples “have the right to be covered legally.” He adds: “That’s what I stood up for.” It is an efficient summary of what happened in 2010.


Francis is never easily confined to any genre, and puts faith in the craft of the artists he trusts.

To say that Pope Francis is a great communicator is virtually a cliché: he is the master of the gracious gesture and detonating metaphor. By turns thrilling and—to some—infuriating, he is seldom dull, not least because he understands the importance of not staying within the confines of institutional communication. The price he pays, as Matthew Sitman points out, is that he often leaves others to argue over what he means. But the advantage for an adult faith is immense: because we are not told what to think, we must take responsibility.

On December 1, for example, he will publish a book titled Let Us Dream that, although subtitled “in conversation with Austen Ivereigh,” will break with the question-and-answer format of papal books of that genre. As I have experienced firsthand, Francis is never easily confined to any genre, and puts faith in the craft of the artists he trusts.          

Hence Francesco, which appears to be a first-of-its kind papal documentary, the result of a close collaboration between the pope and the Russian-born Israeli-American filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky, who has painstakingly followed in the pope’s footsteps to record his leadership and his impact on humanity. Unlike Wim Wenders’s remarkable 2018 movie, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, which was based almost entirely on intimate on-camera talks with Francis, and unlike Let Us Dream, which was drafted by me from dialogues with the pope, Afineevsky never had a sit-down interview with the pope. Francesco is a movie crafted from existing footage, to which Afineevsky was given, it appears, unprecedented access.           

That footage includes Francis’s now famous remarks about same-sex unions, which were taken from a section of a 2019 interview with Valentina Alazraki, a veteran Rome correspondent for the Mexican TV company Televisa. Some of the footage used by Afineevsky was aired by Televisa in May 2019, but some of it—including the remarks about civil-cohabitation law—was withheld on that occasion, apparently by the Vatican. To add to the cauldron of confusion, it is now clear that Afineevsky’s use of the Alazraki footage was selective. In Francesco, Francis says that gay people, “are children of God, they have a right to a family,” but not included is what he added shortly after: “This does not mean approving of homosexual acts, not in the least.”           

The Vatican has remained silent in the face of a barrage of questions: Why did they not want Francis’s remarks on civil unions broadcast in 2019, given that his views have been consistent on this question? And why did they allow Afineevsky to include these remarks in the new documentary? Or did they not know the remarks would be included? 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.

Conservatives claim that Francis has in some way undermined or gone against Church teaching, which is clearly false: he has firmly defended Church doctrine on sexuality and marriage, while the question of how civil law should handle non-marital relationships is not a matter of doctrine but of prudential judgment and discernment. In this, Francis has moved beyond the 2003 CDF document, as popes are entitled to do, so that at least now bishops in countries where gay people are not protected in law have greater freedom to advocate for protections that uphold their dignity, while also resisting the redefinition of marriage.         

While conservatives have tried to claim that Francis is changing Church teaching, progressive Catholic commentators regret that he clearly isn’t. Paul Elie thinks he falls short of a “full recognition of gay people” in seeing gay sex as sinful, while the theologian James Alison points out that the pope has left hanging the question of whether being gay or lesbian is “a vicious or pathological form of a humanity” or simply a “non-pathological minority variant in the human condition.”           

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.

Austen Ivereigh is a British biographer of Pope Francis, and a Fellow in contemporary Church history at Campion Hall, Oxford.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.