The Pope and Civil Unions
Well. This pope continues to amaze!
In a documentary that premiered Wednesday in Rome, Pope Francis called for the passage of civil union laws for same-sex couples, departing from the position of the Vatican’s doctrinal office and the pope’s predecessors on the issue.
The remarks came amid a portion of the documentary that reflected on pastoral care for those who identify as LGBT.
“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,” Pope Francis said in the film, of his approach to pastoral care.
After those remarks, and in comments likely to spark controversy among Catholics, Pope Francis weighed in directly on the issue of civil unions for same-sex couples.
“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered,” the pope said. “I stood up for that.”
The remarks come in “Francesco,” a documentary on the life and ministry of Pope Francis which premiered Oct. 21 as part of the Rome Film Festival, and is set to make its North American premiere on Sunday.
The film chronicles the approach of Pope Francis to pressing social issues, and to pastoral ministry among those who live, in the words of the pontiff, “on the existential peripheries.”
I’m surprised by this development, not because it is heterodox (it’s not) but because, well, I just figured he had enough on his plate and would not be courting more controversy what with being a very old man who is already locked in mortal combat with a whole bunch of enemies who will only seize on this perfectly orthodox prudential judgment to smite him hip and thigh.
But as is characteristic for this good, brave man, he is putting the common good and the dignity of the human person ahead of his own comfort and letting the chips fall where they may.
So, first things first. Here is what this development is not. It is not (and cannot be, by the nature of the Catholic theology of marriage) a signal that the Church is going to bless gay sacramental unions. It is not a statement about the sacrament of marriage at all.
What then is it?
It is a reaffirmation that before we speak of gay human beings as gay human beings, it is necessary to really acknowledge that they are human beings, made in the image and likeness of God and having, therefore, the rights proper to human beings.
“But… they’re gay! They have to accept the Church’s teaching that being gay is wrong! He’s selling the Faith down the river! He is a heretic! I knew it!”
Let’s slow down.
Note how much of a hurry this line of attack is in to ignore the basic point the Holy Father is making: that gay humans are human. In the hurry to tell gays what is wrong with them and fix them and tell them they are bad and wrong and sinful, such lines of attack (and that is what they are–attacks) pay only the merest lip service to what the Church regards as the fundamental fact about not just gays, but all people: that they are made in image and likeness of God. Let’s stay with that fact for a while and not hurry past it.
Human beings, made in the image and likeness of God are “the only creatures on earth that God has willed for its own sake” according to the Church (Gaudium et Spes). This means that humans do not exist to serve some other system–including some ecclesial or theological system.
As human beings, gay people have certain rights. Among these, as the pope is stating clearly, are the right to love who they love, to live where and with who they wish, and to share their property as they see fit.
Now it is true that the Church teaches that homogenital sexual relations are contrary to human dignity. It does not, however, teach that “being gay is wrong”. It is, in fact, silent and agnostic on the origins of sexual orientation.
So in fact, the Church’s doctrinal teaching here is pretty circumscribed: homogenital sex is a sin. Much of the rest of it comes down to prudential judgment, which is what Francis is talking about.
Now prudential judgment is about how best, not whether, to implement the Church’s teaching. What Francis is doing here is addressing that. And what he is saying is that the prudent thing–the thing that has in mind the good of the person who is gay–is that Caesar should protect the rights of that person as of any person to love who they love, to live where and with whom they wish, and to share their property as they see fit. Attempts to attack that wound their dignity as human beings.
What he is not doing (and cannot do) is changing the sacrament of marriage. The reason he cannot do that is the same reason he cannot baptize with beer or consecrate Twinkies and Seven Up as the Eucharist. The Church cannot change the matter of the sacraments. The matter of the sacrament of Marriage is one man and one woman.
Francis gets what many Catholics refuse to get: gay people are human beings, not enemies. Christ died for them too. As I have said from the start of his papacy, everything you need to know about him is summed up in the words, “He has preached good news to the poor”. He is not concerned to defend Fortress Katolicus from assault. His confidence in the gospel is more solid than that. Reactionaries freaking out at him have so little trust in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that they believe God died and put them in charge of saving the Church from the Pope. He has left the Fortress and gone into the highways and byways to gather in those who have been forgotten by the ones huddling in the Fortress and pulling up the drawbridges.
The core mistake of the Righteous (and one in which I, mea culpa, participated in for years) is that they have a long and ever-growing checklist of things that everybody around them have to accept and do before they will accept them as human. Gays are at the top of that list and for many of the Righteous, no gay person will ever be truly acceptable to God, by which they mean themselves.
But the gospel does not start by demanding that people who, often, have no reason to even believe Jesus is the Son of God have to live out some rigorous (and heavily edited to suit MAGA wealth, power, and prejudice) moral code they see no reason to believe is anything but the private fetish of MAGA Catholics. It starts with the love of God and respect for the dignity of each person, including gay persons. In authentic Catholic faith, people come to embrace the high and hard moral teachings of Jesus because they first embrace Jesus as the risen Son of God and the lover of their souls.
What is Francis doing here? He respecting gay persons, because Jesus respects gay persons and he is trying to show them Jesus. He is building bridges of trust and refusing to pull up drawbridges of fear like the guardians of Fortress Katolicus.
Thank God for him through Christ our Lord!
“We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong. We do not want, as the newspapers say, a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world.” – G.K. Chesterton