The internet and media have been in a frenzy since the release of Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary on Pope Francis entitled simply “Francesco.” The documentary’s goal is to show the impact Francis has had on people and their lives on his various journeys around the world, but what has caused the frenzy is a statement the Pope made about the legalization of same-sex civil unions.

The Pope’s comment came in response to a letter he had received from an Italian gay couple asking him how they should live as a united couple and raise their children in a church that does not accept their union but judges it intrinsically evil and sinful.

Homosexuals, the Pope responded, “have a right to be part of the family. They are children of God and have a right to a family.” No Bishop and no Catholic who understands the church’s social teaching about the God-created dignity of all women and men could challenge that statement.

The Catholic sticking point, of course, is not that gays and lesbians have a right to a family but whether they have a right to be married in the Catholic church. The answer to that question is a firm Catholic no, and it is at this point that the issue of civil unions arises.

“What we have to create,” Francis added, “is a civil union law. That way [same-sex couples] are protected. I stood up for that.”

That last sentence reveals something crucial: not “I stand up for that,” as if this is the first time he had supported civil unions, but “I stood up for that,” as in this is not the first time I have urged civil unions, I have done so already in my past life.

Jorge Bergoglio stood up for civil unions in his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. The Argentine government was debating introducing a law allowing same-sex marriage. Cardinal Bergoglio was opposed to such a law and he urged his fellow bishops to support a law legalizing civil unions between same-sex couples in order to protect the privileges of marriage between a man and a woman.

He failed in both efforts. His fellow bishops would not support civil unions and the Argentine government eventually enacted a law permitting and supporting same-sex marriage. Bergoglio described that law as “a destructive attack on God’s plan,” presumably for heterosexual marriage.

Francis also spoke in support of civil unions in a 2014 interview in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and in a 2017 interview with the French sociologist Dominique Wolton.

The screaming internet and media headlines, therefore, are simply false. This is not the first time that Pope Francis has urged the legalization of civil unions for the legal protection of homosexual couples. It is the first time he has urged it publicly as Pope, but his support for civil unions has been long-standing.

Let there be no doubt, however. The Pope’s public urging of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples is a huge step for the Catholic Church. It changes nothing doctrinally, of course, in the Catholic Church, but it also changes everything.

It does not establish any official church ethical doctrine, but the suggestion that the human dignity of gay and lesbian loving couples is in need of legal protection is a momentous enhancement of their support and should be heeded by the U.S. Catholic Bishops.

That it should come from the leader of the Catholic Church who declared in his post-synodal exhortation that there are “absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (Amoris laetitia, 251) makes it even more momentous.

It is crucial to note what Francis says here and does not say. He says that same-sex civil unions are not to be thought as analogous to heterosexual marriages; he does not say anywhere that they are disordered or immoral.

We have argued elsewhere that Pope Francis’ “new pastoral methods,” which suggest that “different communities will have to devise more practical and effective initiatives that respect both the Church’s teaching and local problems and needs” (AL, n. 199), have opened the door for the organic development of doctrine.

In one sense, his support for the legalization of same-sex civil unions puts him at odds with the official sexual doctrine of the Catholic Church, which teaches that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and “under no circumstances can they be approved” (Catechism, n. 2357; Persona Humana, 8).

In another sense, however, it clearly reflects the social doctrine of the Catholic Church that promotes human dignity, opposes all discrimination, and teaches that homosexual people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (Catechism, n. 2358).

Pope Francis neither accepts nor promotes the sacramental marriage of same-sex couples in the Church. He does, however, recognize and promote legal protections for human dignity in both civil and church law.

His new pastoral statement defending same-sex civil unions should be read as an attempt to balance those two realities in a way that promotes human dignity, welcomes members of the LGBTQ community into the Church family, and treats them with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

His statement, which clearly promotes Catholic social teaching but just as clearly diverges from Catholic sexual teaching, has brought joy and hope to homosexual individuals and couples, to their families, and to their friends, but it will also bring condemnation and renewed vitriol from those long opposed to Pope Francis and his new pastoral methods. They prioritize Catholic sexual teaching and its absolute norms above Catholic social teaching and its promotion of human dignity and the common good.

Among these are the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as a body and many individual American bishops who persistently lobby against “non-discrimination” legislation which will allow them to discriminate legally against homosexual persons.

Pope Francis’ concern for the “legal protection” of same-sex couples highlights three very important points that the USCCB and many U.S. bishops continue to ignore.

First, it highlights a clear distinction between civil law and Church law. Clarion cries from the USCCB for “religious freedom” often ignore this distinction and seek to impose Catholic doctrine on civic society.

The Bishops have a right to argue for Church doctrine in the civic realm, but they do not have a right to impose that doctrine in terms of civic law.

In addition, if the civic realm rejects its arguments, as it did in the USCCBs’ amicus curiae brief on the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges, which ruled in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, it is not a violation of religious liberty, as so many bishops claim. Rather, it is the case that civic society, SCOTUS in this case, does not consider the USCCB’s legal argument against same-sex marriage credible. Rather, it sees the law opposing such marriages as a violation of basic legal and human rights.

Second, Francis’ call for legal protection recognizes that same-sex couples in specific and, one can rightly assume, LGBTQ people in general, are discriminated against at the very least or actually suffer violence, as is the case in many countries and is evidenced in several States that label crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity “hate crimes.”

The USCCB as a body, and many individual bishops, have argued against “non-discrimination” legislation for sexual orientation and gender identity in employment and housing under the principle of not “unjust discrimination,” which advocates for “just discrimination.” Many bishops continue to fire Catholic school employees who they discover are in legal same-sex civil marriages and prohibit Catholic adoption or fostering agencies, who receive state or federal funding, as in the pending SCOTUS case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, to allow same-sex couples to adopt or foster.

Third, the USCCB and many individual bishops continue to prioritize Catholic sexual teaching and its teaching against homosexual acts over and above Catholic social teaching and its prohibition against discrimination.

The suggestion that there can be “just discrimination” against homosexuals simply because they are homosexuals is a contradiction in terms, for discrimination against them on this basis is always unjust.

A gay man can be discriminated against in employment if he is not qualified for the job, a lesbian woman can be denied a driver’s license if she is too young to drive safely, and they can both be discriminated against in the selection for a soccer team if they are not skillful enough, but there cannot be “just discrimination” against them simply because they are gay or lesbian.

That the USCCB would implicitly support discrimination against homosexuals simply because they are homosexual and might engage in prohibited sexual activity is a fundamental violation of their inviolable consciences, human rights, and dignity. Yet the USCCB uses the principle of not “unjust discrimination” to promote discrimination against homosexuals in legislation regulating marriage, adoption, and employment.

Catholic social teaching is indisputably clear that discrimination is immoral. The Catechism teaches that “The equality of men [and women] rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: ‘Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design’” (n. 1935).

The Catechism does not include sexual orientation or gender identity in this list and the USCCB has vehemently resisted employment non-discrimination legislation on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, as is clear in its amicus curiae brief filed with SCOTUS in the case of R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

However, Pope Francis’ statement sheds an entirely new light on this issue. His recognition of legal protections for same-sex civil unions makes an important distinction between civil law and Church doctrine, prioritizes Catholic social doctrine over sexual doctrine, recognizes that LGBTQ people are discriminated against and need legal protection, and calls the Church to practice respect, compassion, and hospitality towards all people, especially LGBTQ people.

To all these opponents of Pope Francis we point out the historically obvious: the Catholic Church has changed often in its long history and it can, and surely will, change again in the future.

Pope Francis has sought to change it by introducing empathy, compassion, and respect for the human dignity of LGBTQ individuals and couples into the twenty-first century church he pastors, demonstrating that he, at least, is listening to the great gospel command: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

On Novena, more coverage of Pope Francis’ same-sex civil unions support:

Analysis: In supporting same-gender civil unions, Pope Francis is encouraging a broader Catholic view of family

Vatican clarifies Pope’s same-gender civil unions remarks, insists they do not change Church doctrine (full text)

Novena editorial: Four things the Pope must do now to further LGBT+ equality after same-gender civil unions support (and one we can do ourselves)

Analysis: Pope Francis’ support for civil unions is a call to justice

Reaction: “An historic moment”: LGBT ministry “gratefully welcomes” Pope’s support for same-gender civil unions, seeks same recognition in Church


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Michael G. Lawler is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Creighton University. Todd A. Salzman is Amelia and Emil Graff Professor of Catholic Theology at the same institution.