Pope Francis is in the headlines again after a documentary film by the Russian Jew, Evgeny Afineevsky, was premiered at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday. This time the Pope is strongly advocating for ‘civil unions’. Matthew Charlesworth writes about why this is not necessarily new, but it is a strong signal to members of the Church in countries that currently criminalise homosexuals to work for their legal protection. This follows from the Pope’s insistence that “nobody should be thrown out.”
This article was updated to include the Press Statement of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) on Friday, 23 October 2020 1pm.
The media was abuzz this week about a new documentary by Evgeny Afineevsky entitled ‘Francesco’. It premiered in Rome on Wednesday, and it has been reported that the Pope said in the film: “Homosexual people have a right to be in a family,” … “They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or made miserable over it.” … “What we have to create is a ‘civil union’ law. That way they are legally covered.”
In one sense this is news, but in another, it is not.
All Catholics are well-aware that the sacrament of marriage is held to be between a man and a woman. But Catholics are also aware that a sacramental marriage is different to a civil marriage, and that a marriage is different to a civil union.
The advantage of the legal protections Francis desires is familiar to us in South Africa, where we have the Civil Union Act which permits civil partnerships. It enables the legal recognition and protection of persons in a relationship. This allows for advantages in society, such as allowing parties to be permitted to visit a loved-one in hospital, to be assured of security and inheritance, and a host of other common-sense protections which without legal recognition could be unjustly or unfairly withheld.
Zealously defending marriage, some Catholics have, in various countries and at various times, sought to oppose the introduction and recognition of civil unions in the mistaken belief that this threatens the sacramental understanding of marriage. But this is not the case. Allowing civil unions does not diminish a Catholics’ understanding or right to celebrate a sacramental marriage between a man and a woman.
What Pope Francis has done neither threatens the sacramental understanding of marriage, but nor is it strictly speaking ‘new’. He is on record for supporting civil unions when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires whilst opposing redefining sacramental marriage. But in re-iterating his support for civil unions as Pope, he is signalling to the Church around the world that we should support civil unions in our own countries. Of course he has not done this in a formal teaching document, but he is communicating his view nonetheless, and Catholics around the world will take note.
This is a work of justice, especially in a continent where so many countries still criminalise homosexuals with imprisonment, or worse, capital punishment. In recognising civil unions he is signalling that criminalising homosexual behaviour can no longer be tolerated. It is not in keeping with the global understanding of human rights, nor the Christian law of love.
The Pope is reminding us of what the Catechism has long taught. Homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” (CCC 2358).
Christians are called to see the individual person as deserving of dignity and not to narrowly stereotype them by their actions. Pope Francis is reminding us that we must encounter the whole person, and not reduce their lives and relationships to what sexual acts they may or may not do together.
It is possible to uphold the sanctity of sacramental marriage between a man and a woman, whilst recognising civil rights and protections for those in a relationship that is not, and does not claim to be, a sacramental marriage.
This is a pastoral move by the Holy Father to reach out to gay people and families with gay children, brothers and sisters, to say they should not be shunned or isolated, but rather included in the family. As he said “nobody should be thrown out”. His statement follows on from his comments in 2018 when he returned to Rome from Dublin:
Right from the beginning of his pontificate Francis has desired a more welcoming Church. In 2013 he said, when asked about gay priests “Who am I to judge?”
He has urged the Church to focus on the person, their humanity, created in the image and likeness of God, rather than reduce them to their sexuality. Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of clerical sex abuse, said that he has spoken about his sexuality with the Pope. He claims that Pope Francis said to him “God made you gay. God loves you like you are and you have to love yourself.”
The documentary focusses on issues that have been close to Francis’ heart during his seven years as pope. These include rights for migrants, women in the Church and climate change.
UPDATE: At 1pm on Friday, 23 October 2020 the Communications Office of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference released the following press statement On The Question of Civil Unions dated Thursday, 22 October 2020, in which the SACBC Spokesperson, Archbishop Emeritus William Slattery OFM, notes the following five points:
- A recently published statement by Pope Francis appearing to call for the passage of Civil Union Laws for same sex couples does not represent a departing from the traditional Catholic position regarding Christian Marriage.
- In his beautiful document Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis endorses the teaching of the Church in regard to Christian Marriage which states: “As for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, 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.”
- The Pope goes on to say: “It is unacceptable that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex” (Amoris Laetitia, 251).
- The Pope realises that there is a minority of persons who live in homosexual unions and need to be protected by civil law. Civil unions are simply that – agreements controlled by civil law. For the Catholic Church they are in no way marriages. They are simply civil statements by which a gay couple express their civil relationship to each other.
- The Pope and the Church 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.