The Vatican has clarifiied the Pope’s recent remarks on same-gender civil unions, insisting that they do not change Church doctrine.

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh published on his Twitter feed Sunday a letter that was sent out to bishops “via a Latin American nuncio” October 30 at the request of the Vatican Secretary of State.

That letter referred to the debate stirred up by comments from the Pope which appeared in a new documentary, Francesco.

In that film, Francis appears to say: “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family… They’re children of God and have a right to a family… Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it [sexual orientation]… What we have to create is a civil union law… That way [gay couples] are legally covered”.

But the new Vatican letter – which claims to have been authorised by the Pope himself – rules out any change to Church doctrine on the basis of those apparent statements of Francis’.

The missive sent out to bishops at the request of the Vatican Secretary of State indirectly accuses Francesco director Evgeny Afineevsky of selectively editing the Pope’s words from different interviews and responding to different questions, a situation which it acknowledges has caused “confusion”.

Returning the Pope’s words to their rightful context, and also interpreting Francis’ statements in the light of the pontiff’s 2016 apostolic exhortation on love in the family Amoris laetitia, the Vatican letter concludes that the the Pope’s quotes in Francesco refer only to “particular arrangements of the State [and] certainly not to the doctrine of the Church, which has been reaffirmed many times over the years”.

“To understand some of the expressions of the Pope in the documentary Francesco

Full text of the Vatican letter

(Translation: Novena)

Some statements contained in the documentary Francesco by director Evgeny Afineevsky have provoked in the past few days various reactions and interpretations. Therefore, some useful elements are offered, with the desire to encourage, on [the Pope’s] instruction, a proper understanding of the words of the Holy Father.

More than a year ago, during an interview, Pope Francis answered two different questions at two different times which, in the above-mentioned documentary, were edited and published as a single answer without due contextualisation, which has generated confusion.

The Holy Father had first made a pastoral reference to the necessity that, within the family, the son or daughter with a homosexual orientation should never be discriminated against.

They are the ones to whom the words refer: “Homosexual persons have the right to be in the family; they are children of God, they have the right to a family. No one can be thrown out of the family or life be made impossible for them”.

The following paragraph from the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on love in the family Amoris laetitia (2016) can shed light on such expressions:

“During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children. We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives” (n. 250).

A subsequent question in the interview in contrast was in reference to a local law of ten years ago in Argentina on “marriage equality of couples of the same sex” and the opposition of the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires to the same.

In this regard, Pope Francis stated that “it is incongruous to speak of homosexual marriage”, adding that, in the same context, he had spoken of the right of these people to have some legal coverage: “what we have to do is a civil union law; they have the right to be legally covered. I defended that”.

The Holy Father had expressed himself as follows during an interview in 2014:

“Marriage is between a man and a woman. Secular States want to justify civil unions in order to regulate various situations of cohabitation, driven by the demand to regulate economic aspects between people, such as ensuring health care. These are different kinds of cohabitation agreements, of which I would not know how to give a list of the different forms. It is necessary to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety”.

It is therefore clear that Pope Francis has referred to particular arrangements of the State [and] certainly not to the doctrine of the Church, which has been reaffirmed many times over the years.

More on Novena on the Pope’s same-gender civil unions remarks:

Pope’s same-gender civil unions support scorned in Spanish Church: Bishops’ secretary criticises modern families as diocese fires lesbian

Dublin archbishop welcomes Pope’s comments on civil unions, says Francis “clearing the air for further discussion” on LGBT rights

Theologian says Church can no longer refuse to bless same-gender relationships after Pope’s backing of civil unions

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

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

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


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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.