IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Pope Francis' civil union endorsement is welcome. But what are his words really worth?

Perhaps the reason the pontiff's declaration seems so promising is that for far too long LGBTQ Roman Catholics have been marginalized by the church.
Weekly general audience of Pope Francis, September 16th, 2020
Pope Francis greets the faithful at his weekly audience on Sept. 16 in Vatican City.Grzegorz Galazka / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images file

Perhaps because the world has so little optimistic news, a new documentary about Pope Francis in which he says positive words about same-sex civil unions has made headlines. The pope said of gay couples: "They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it.”

Being recognized as part of the human family seems more a sign of how cruelly the church has acted in the past than a gesture of substantive change in the present.

“What we have to create is a civil union law,” he added. “That way, they are legally covered.”

While it's good that Francis is showing acceptance and tolerance, these words alone are not going to change what happens in parishes and dioceses in the United States and elsewhere. It doesn't say to Roman Catholic schools: Let the children of gay couples attend. It doesn't say to Catholic social welfare agencies: Let same-sex couples adopt.

I can understand many LGBTQ Catholics taking both hope and comfort from the pope’s words. And I do acknowledge that for a pope to be this welcoming is a positive gesture. In a statement Wednesday after the pope’s quote became public, Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, which represents gay Catholics said that “if true, the pope’s comments could represent an international game-changer and a major step forward for LGBTQI equality.”

However, while the organization said it was “cautiously optimistic” about the pope’s words, it was necessary to see the entire interview., “We are very early in the story,” Duddy-Burke noted. “While pleased by the news reports, we wonder how the pope’s comments fit with existing Catholic teachings that condemn same-sex relationships as ‘intrinsically evil.’”

As a longtime Francis watcher, I agree with urging some caution.

Six years ago, in another media encounter, the pope indicated he might be able to accept civil unions without mentioning same-sex unions per se. The Vatican later issued a clarification: “The pope did not choose to enter into debates about the delicate matter of gay civil unions. In his response to the interviewer, he emphasized the natural characteristic of marriage between one man and one woman, and on the other hand, he also spoke about the obligation of the state to fulfill its responsibilities towards its citizens.” The statement concluded, “We should not try to read more into the pope’s words than what has been stated in very general terms.”

It is possible that Francis will end up backtracking once more. There will almost certainly be a big explosion of anger among conservative Catholics at his recent declaration, and Francis’ MO is to try to smooth things out.

Remember, this wasn't a papal pronouncement, this was an interview. Francis was opining about many things, speaking off the cuff. It’s telling that the Vatican has not officially responded. This says to me that Francis never clued his PR machine in to the possibility that some of his comments might make some news.

It is true that while serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis endorsed civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriages. However, he had never come out publicly in favor of civil unions while pope.

And he is not exactly consistent in his thinking. In a closed-door meeting in 2016, Francis reportedly lamented the fact that schools were teaching children that they could choose their own gender. It was a “terrible” state of affairs, the pope opined. “God created man and woman; God created the world like this, and we are doing the exact opposite.”

Moreover, the pope says many things that don’t necessarily presage a departure in what the institutional church actually does. In 2016, there was hope the pope might approve female deacons — church ministers who can’t say Mass, but can baptize, preside at weddings and preach. Responding to a question from a nun, Francis said he was open to the idea and even agreed to form a commission to look into the matter.

A commission was duly formed, but it failed to come to a consensus on the issue. A special meeting of bishops convened in 2019 to address the shortage of priests in the Amazon said positive things about women as deacons and their future role as well. Another commission was formed, but the membership excluded scholars who supported the change. Now, two commissions later, we’re no closer to having women become deacons than we were four years ago.

I certainly do not want to discount the impact of the pope’s expression of tolerance on LGBTQ Catholics. Catholic journalist Michael O’Loughlin praised the pope’s comments in a tweet Wednesday: “Having just spent months researching the Vatican’s statements on LGBT issues in the 1980s for my book, I assure you this is big news.”

But perhaps the reason it seems so promising is that for far too long gay Catholics have been marginalized by the church, or worse, told their only route to being considered “good” Catholics was sexual abstinence.

Being recognized as part of the human family seems more a sign of how cruelly the church has acted in the past than a gesture of substantive change in the present.

Will the pope urge prelates in parts of the world where gay Catholics are persecuted — such as West Africa — to condemn that treatment instead of staying silent or even joining in? Will he tell parishes to welcome gay families in their midst? Will he declare that no church institutions should fire staff because they are gay?

That’s where the rubber meets the road. The pope must show, not just tell.