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Pope's civil union remarks raise hopes, doubts for gay Catholics

While one practicing Catholic said she was "cautiously optimistic," another woman who left the church said she "won’t be running back" any time soon.
Image: Pope Francis delivers \"Urbi et Orbi\" Christmas Day message from main balcony of St. Peter's Basilica
Pope Francis waves as he delivers the Urbi et Orbi Christmas Day message at the Vatican on Dec. 25.Yara Nardi / Reuters file

Pope Francis’ call for legal recognition of same-sex relationships has raised both hope and doubts among LGBTQ Catholics.

“What we have to create is a civil union law,” the pontiff said in “Francesco,” an upcoming documentary from Russian American filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky. “That way, they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”

The remarks are a departure from earlier church messaging. In his last book, “Memory and Identity,” Pope John Paul II suggested same-sex marriage was “part of a new ideology of evil.”

In 2003, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI, wrote that respect for gays and lesbians "cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions."

“Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior,” Ratzinger wrote, “but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity.”

Francis’ evolution

Francis’ comments also reflect an evolution in his own views on same-sex relationships.

In 2010, while still archbishop in Argentina, he called a proposed gay marriage law in the country a "destructive proposal to God's plan."

It was not mere legislation, he claimed, “but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

Argentina formally recognized same-sex marriage just a few weeks later anyway.

“He was the visible face of the Catholic Church’s opposition to equal marriage and he approached it from a fundamentalist position, posturing that he had to wage a war of God against what he considered a plan of the devil,” Esteban Paulon, president of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals, told the Associated Press in 2013.

As gay marriage took hold globally, Francis, whose papacy began in March 2013, seemed to soften.

In 2013, when asked about homosexuality in the church, he responded, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?"

He first raised the idea of civil unions four years later, drawing a distinction with marriage.

“Let’s say things as they are: Marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said during a series of conversations with the French sociologist Dominique Wolton. “This is the precise term. Lets call unions between the same sex ‘civil unions.’”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the Maryland-based LGBTQ-affirming New Ways Ministry, wants the pope to take the next step and call for the recognition and blessing of same-sex unions within the Catholic Church.

“I think it’s not as far away as you might think,” he told NBC News. “In Germany and Austria and Australia, there have already been calls from theologians and priests to bless same-sex unions.”

“The church always changes its teachings after practice, not before,” he added. “We’re going to start seeing people doing blessings in different places.”

‘Cautiously optimistic’

Dignity USA, another LGBTQ Catholic ministry, says it is “cautiously optimistic” about the pope’s sentiments.

Dignity’s executive director, Marianne Duddy-Burke, points out the pontiff’s support is still in stark contrast to current church doctrine, which condemns homosexual acts as “objectively disordered” and same-sex relationships as “intrinsically evil” — even though 61 percent of U.S. Catholics support same-sex marriage, according to a 2019 Pew Research Forum survey.

“We hope that Pope Francis will take steps to enshrine support for same-sex couples, LGBTQI individuals, and our families in official Catholic teachings and will work to formally end Catholic teachings that are hurtful to LGBTQI people,” Duddy-Burke said in a statement, adding an “I” to the LGBTQ acronym for “intersex.”

DeBernardo cautions that the pope “doesn’t create rules, he sets tone.” “He’s setting a new tone here, even if he has opposition from bishops — especially in the U.S., where the bishops are very conservative,” he said. “He doesn’t want schism; he doesn't want division. It’s a balancing act.”

In June, Terry Gonda was fired from her job as a music minister at St. John Fisher Chapel in Auburn Hills, Michigan, after the archdiocese discovered she was married to a woman.

Gonda, 59, said Francis’ support for civil unions filled her with hope, calling it “a challenge to the U.S. church to open its doors to a new pastoral approach.”

“We still have a crisis of families being separated, of people leaving the church, of suicide, of broken spirituality,” she said. “Let’s look at this as an opportunity for the church to live up to its message that, ‘You are welcome.’”

While Gonda has stayed with her church, she understands the frustration felt by those who leave.

“The Catholic church has only just recently acknowledged there is a sexual orientation other than heterosexual,” she added. “It’s going to take a lot more dialogue for the church to acknowledge that scripture really has nothing to say about homosexuality.”

‘I won’t be running back’

For some LGBTQ Catholics, the wait is too long.

Veronica Urias, 30, a lesbian from Houston, is skeptical church leadership will ever be truly welcoming. Urias converted to Catholicism in college but ultimately left “because I wanted more.”

Veronica Urias.Courtesy of Veronica Urias

“I wanted to fully be a part of a church that I could get married in and raise a family in someday,” she told NBC News. “It will take decades for the churches to change. I have a church I can get married in [now] and my future children will grow in.”

Without a change in spiritual teachings, the prospect of legal recognition doesn’t really matter to her. “I won’t be running back to the Catholic church just because I can get married,” Urias said.

To Benjamin Brenkert, a former Jesuit seminarian and the author of the recent memoir, “A Catechism of the Heart,” the pope’s comments were a cop-out.

“He’s just punting the salvation of gay people to the state,” Brenkert, 40, said. “He represents 1.2 billion people and basically said, ‘Gay marriage isn’t good enough for the church to look at, so if you’re in Italy, or Poland or the U.S., you should be protected by the state.” Brenkert called the pontiff a “master communicator of misdirection,” offering a few sentences to a filmmaker to avoid having to take a real stand from the Vatican.

Benjamin Brenkert, a former Jesuit and author of the recent memoir "A Catechism of the Heart."Courtesy Benjamin Brenkert

What the pope needs to do, Brenkert said, is declare officially to gay people that “their love is not evil or that procreational sex in not the only acceptable form of intimacy.”

Brenkert draws a distinction between candid comments and church doctrine. The next pope, he said, could just as easily take a hard line against gay relationships.

“Until the pope writes an encyclical on homosexuality or issues an edict ex cathedra, from the chair of Saint Peter, these words don’t mean anything,” he said. “You’re just giving people in the pews hope for something that’s never coming. Why should they take this statement of hope and then be betrayed by his silence?”

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