Last Thursday, Catholics woke up to surprising—and for many of us, welcome—news: the pope had come out in favor civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family,” he’d been recorded saying on footage included in the feature-length documentary, Francesco, which had just premiered. “Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.” Then came the line that has generated so much controversy: “What we have to have is a civil-union law; that way they are legally covered.”
Bold headlines splashed across the Catholic press. “Pope Francis declares support for same-sex civil unions for the first time as pope,” read a typical example. Mainstream outlets like the Washington Post reported the news in a similar way: “Pope Francis calls for civil union laws for same-sex couples.” Meanwhile, commentators scrambled to tell us what it all meant. One of his biographers, capturing the mood among many of Francis’s admirers, described the pope as “speaking directly and unambiguously of the right of gay people to be in families, i.e. loving relationships of care and tenderness underpinned by long-term commitment.”
These headlines, and the stories and commentary swirling around them, were, strictly speaking, accurate. It was the first time since becoming pope that Francis had spoken publicly in favor of civil unions for same-sex couples, and such an endorsement shouldn’t be downplayed—even if it felt like something of a belated concession. As Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, argued after the news broke, when the pope speaks, “he sends forth ripples that have an effect on how policy and pastoral ministry is carried out on all levels of the church.” Though he was not talking directly about doctrine, or advocating for any formal change in Church teaching, Francis’s affirming words could encourage parishes and priests, and all Catholics, to be more welcoming of LGBTQ people. As DeBernardo also emphasized, the comments could especially make a difference in places where, too often with the backing of local bishops, same-sex relationships have been criminalized.
But since news of what Francis said broke, the story has grown more complex—and confusing. It turns out that his endorsement of civil unions did not even happen during filming for Francesco. Instead, as the New York Times reported, the pope’s comments were made in a 2019 interview with a Mexican broadcaster, Televisa. It had been filmed with Vatican cameras, and they controlled what could be done with the footage. According to two people close to Televisa, “The Vatican cut out the pope’s remarks on same-sex unions in the edited version.” The raw footage capturing the remarks about civil unions, however, was placed in the Vatican’s archives. When the makers of Francesco were given access to the archives, they found the footage and used it in their documentary.
Thus, Francis’s comments were finally made public. Surely, though, this convoluted path to their being shared means that words such as “declares” or “calls for” or “directly and unambiguously” are, if not literally wrong, then at least highly misleading. What kind of declaration is made by allowing, perhaps inadvertently, archival footage to be used in a documentary? Since we don’t know if Francis knew that the endorsement had been cut from the original interview or if he knew that it would be included in the new documentary, can it be truly said that he intended to make these views known now, let alone describe him as forthrightly calling for such measures? These are legitimate questions, not conspiratorial accusations—which some, unfortunately, have indulged. There seems to be no reason to question the authenticity of the footage, and while the nuances of the Spanish phrase Francis used, convivencia civil, might be debated, there’s wide agreement that it includes what’s commonly meant by the term civil unions.
Clarification about these matters, alas, does not appear to be forthcoming. As the Associated Press revealed, “The Vatican has refused to comment and imposed something of a media blackout on the matter. None of the Vatican’s in-house media has reported on the cut quote, and on Friday the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano quoted an email from a staffer in the Vatican’s communications ministry to other staff saying there wouldn’t be any comment, but that ‘talks are underway to deal with the current media crisis.’” If that really is the case, it further undercuts the notion that the pope’s endorsement is best understood as an announcement of some kind. Wouldn’t the Vatican at least say something affirmative about what’s happened, or be prepared to respond in some way, if that was the intention?