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.