Pope Francis Praised for ‘Civil Unions’ Comment, But Justice Begins at Home—In the Vatican

Pope Francis meets with German bishops in 2015. Image: Vatican Media.

Theology, “the queen of the sciences” as it’s been known since the Middle Ages, is data-driven. Therefore, I waited to opine on Pope Francis’ much-discussed comments on civil unions until I’d seen the data, a good start for careful theological work. 

The quote favoring civil unions was in the new documentary “Franceso” directed by Russian prize-winning, Emmy-nominated director Evgeny Afineevsky. It reads: 

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it. What we have to have is a civil union law—that way they are legally covered. I supported that.” 

I highly recommend the film—the theology less so, though it’s all worth discussing. 

The most astonishing aspect of what’s now a global conversation on theology and civil unions—Elton John thanked the Pope, and Cardinal Raymond Burke expressed expected horror—is that it’s based on scant data. That’s clue Number One that the topic is ripe for conversation and that people of varying views will use Pope Francis’ words to confirm their own positions. A look at the movie offers a context for how to interpret the text. 

Unless one knows better in advance, it would be easy to conclude from the film that there are just a handful of Catholic women in the world.
Evgeny Afineevsky crafted his film with the Covid reality in mind. He portrays Pope Francis as a generous, humble man: a sharp contrast to one U.S. presidential contender whom Afineevsky opposes. Climate change and the plight of 70 million forcefully-displaced refugees are uppermost on the papal mind. Francis calls the problem “globalized indifference,” which sums up the current attitude of many people who have the economic and social power to care concretely for all of creation but choose not to do so. 

The movie is more than a puff piece about Francis. Beautifully filmed scenes of a pre-Covid world include his travel to war-torn and refugee-laden lands. His powerful messages include acceptance of all persons, care for Earth, and interreligious cooperation. These resound in light of the civil war in the Central African Republic and in Myanmar with the genocide of Muslim Rohingya people. It’s wrenching to see the camps he visited in Lesbos where the needs of Syrian refugees exceeded exponentially the resources available for humane living. Many viewers are moved to extend kudos and gratitude to Francis for his leadership in these situations.

Also included in the film are significant segments on the global sexual abuse crisis including some Chilean bishops who covered up sexual abuse committed by their clergy. Francis publicly admitted that he was given faulty intelligence on that situation. He eventually reversed his initial defense of fellow clergymen and forced several Chilean bishops to resign. Francis can change his mind which is hopeful with regard to other issues.  

Unless one knows better in advance, it would be easy to conclude from the film that there are just a handful of Catholic women in the world. Several have been tapped for Vatican posts; for example, Barbara Jatta, is the Director of Vatican Museums. But in extensive footage filmed around the world, a viewer can count on two hands the number of women, including two heads of state, who have any semblance of agency and are real actors in cooperation with Francis. 

Instead, his bishops, secretaries, interreligious colleagues, escorts, and welcomers are all men all the time. It may seem churlish to point out this dynamic in light of Francis’ many good works. But it’s a telltale sign of an institution that needs to get its own house in order before its maximum impact can be felt outside.  

American theologian Ilia Dilio pointed out this dynamic in reference to the recent papal encyclical Fratelli Tutti (“all brothers”). Its unfortunate title simultaneously ignores women qua women and reinforces gender binaries despite its lofty prose about human community. She asked: 

“How do we make sense of this in a church that does not regard women as equal? A church that will not allow the ordination of women or even the ability of women to preach? A church that insists on mandating the rights of a woman’s body? A church that excludes LGBTQ persons from full acceptance and does not allow divorced and remarried persons to participate in the liturgy?” 

Dilio concludes about the encyclical what I think the film also reveals: 

I suspect Francis is speaking to the world because no one is listening to him at home, or perhaps because he is afraid to speak to his own brothers, afraid to dismantle the cult of a patriarchal priesthood and open the doors of the church to real community, one in which women are granted full rights and full freedom.” 

Justice, like charity, begins at home. 

This is the background in which the words in the film about civil unions must be read. The whole statement took about thirty seconds (of a 117 minute film). It was connected to a vignette of a man who handed the Pope a letter after Mass explaining that he and his male partner weren’t sure about taking their three adopted children to church for fear of how their family would be treated. Francis called him and explained that they should go to church, that the children would benefit more from going than not going.

When it became clear that same-sex marriage was destined for civil approval in Argentina, Bergoglio advised the bishops that by supporting civil unions they could perhaps stave off marriage equality.

Really? In light of the Roman Catholic Church’s scandalous mistreatment of LGBTQIA+ people over centuries, any responsible Catholic parent would have the same question. Left unsaid is whether Francis called the pastor of the parish involved to insist on just treatment of this and every other LGBTQIA+ person in the world. Somehow I doubt it.

In any case, the civil union quote is probably not native to the film. More likely, but at this writing still unclear, is that it may have come from a 2019 interview with Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki. Apparently, it was left on the cutting room floor when that interview was released under Vatican supervision, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out why.  

Francis has long upheld the institutional Roman Catholic Church’s position that marriage requires a male and a female. A decade ago, when his native Argentina took up the question of marriage equality. Francis, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, opposed the measure calling it a “destructive attack on God’s plan” and suggesting it came from the devil. 

Oh my. 

When it became clear that same-sex marriage was destined for civil approval in Argentina, Bergoglio advised the bishops that by supporting civil unions they could perhaps stave off marriage equality. Of course that strategy failed miserably when Argentina became the first country in Latin America to approve same-sex marriage in 2010. 

It’s important to underscore this datum of theological history in order to ground the current conversation in reality. Whether the Pope still holds the view that the reason to support civil unions is to keep hetero-marriage ‘safe’ is not known. As we’ve already seen he’s a person who can change his mind. But since his view of ten years ago was a strategic one, the current statement on civil unions is hardly a ringing papal endorsement of same-sex anything. 

Imagine if a government told the Vatican to perform sacramental marriages for all Catholics. The Vatican would reject such a suggestion out of hand.
Many Catholic officials have been scurrying around of late saying that civil unions can be entered into by siblings, friends without benefits as it were, and others who might wish to avail themselves of legal protections which in some countries are still only for the heterosexually married. I hasten to remind them that before same-sex marriage was available in the thirty countries where it’s now legalized, many of those countries offered (and some still offer) civil unions. 

Statistics are hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the vast majority of couples who formed civil unions were same sex partners who enjoyed the same kinds of relationships, including sex and children if they so choose, as their hetero-married counterparts. What they did not enjoy before marriage equality was the many financial and social benefits that come with marriage. That is unjust. 

Three unresolved issues are additional data points for theology. First, what authority does a pope have to tell a civil government what to do? Francis makes relatively few demands on countries he visits, steering clear, for example in Myanmar, of much mention of the Rohingya matter. Imagine if a government told the Vatican to perform sacramental marriages for all Catholics. The Vatican would reject such a suggestion out of hand, and call out the government for interference in the internal workings of a religious organization (which also claims to be a state, but set that aside for now). 

Likewise, it can be diplomatically sensitive, not to say offensive, for a religious official to suggest to civil governments how they should handle their own affairs. To Francis I would say, attend first to your own wheelhouse which includes sacraments. Extend the Roman Catholic Sacrament of Marriage to all who wish to avail themselves of it and then you’d have standing to suggest civil unions in secular states. 

Second, given Francis’ thinking that civil unions and not marriage are sufficient for some people, logic compels one to ask what Catholicism would look like if such an approach were followed for other sacraments. For example, if medical care is sufficient for those who are ill, then why worry about the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (previously known as Extreme Unction) which so many Catholics find comforting spiritually? 

The Sacrament of Ordination is already reserved to men. This presumes that it’s sufficient for Catholic women to get affirmation of their priestly vocations from the Lutheran and Anglican communions, for example, after they leave the Roman Catholic Church. In the same vein, maybe birth certificates are enough, and the Sacrament of Baptism has lost all meaning. 

Such thinking leads to a “leaner meaner church” along the lines of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Contrary to his supporters who laud his openness, maybe Francis is of like mind. I would like to think not, but evidence is mounting that Catholic sacramental life is being truncated in the service of conserving outmoded theology. 

Third, the Pope’s words on civil unions, however well-meaning beyond an instrumentalist way of keeping the queer devil at bay, ring hollow. In light of his fulsome calls for world peace, an end to nuclear weapons and the death penalty, economic equality, and a halt to genocide, it’s odd and disappointing that he cannot gird up his cassock and find the gumption to affirm relational equality and justice. Doing so could lend credence to his other justice stances. 

Theology is data-driven. On civil unions, responses to a few dozen papal words have been more a Rorschach test of people’s views than a clear reading of what Francis meant. Some have condemned his comments. But many hopes and dreams of a welcoming church are generously attributed to a few short sentences. The people’s views are an important data point in the creation of a robust theology of love, regardless of what any pope says.