Pope's Civil Unions Comments Spur Hope — But Caution Too

By Michael O'Loughlin

Originally published on Advocate.com March 06 2014 4:12 PM ET

A day after Pope Francis's comments that suggest the Catholic Church should examine civil unions appeared in an Italian newspaper, questions remain as to whether or not the leader of the church was expressing support for civil recognition of same-sex couples, heterosexual couples married outside the Catholic Church, or something else entirely.

As The Advocate noted yesterday, while some published reports claimed the pope endorsed the concept of civil unions, he actually simply admitted that new realities must be examined. He maintained the church’s long-held belief that “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Meanwhile, reaction is coming from the Vatican itself and numerous observers.

Rev. Tom Rosica of the Vatican's press office has sent out an email on the matter, writing that Pope Francis "did not choose to enter into debates about the delicate matter of gay civil unions" but spoke generally "about the obligation of the state to fulfill its responsibilities towards its citizens."

Further, he said, the pope "simply stated the issues and did not interfere with positions held by Episcopal Conferences in various countries dealing with the question of civil unions and same-sex marriage," referring to the positions taken by national conferences of Catholic bishops. In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been a leading opponent of marriage equality efforts in several states.

Still, some church observers believe the statement reflects a change in tone in the Catholic Church.

"Even though church teaching has not change, church tone has changed. Pope Francis's latest comments on civil unions represents a decided shift in the Vatican's way of speaking about these matters. It's a gentler, milder and more pastoral tone," James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at America magazine said in an email to The Advocate.

Francis DeBernardo, head of the pro-LGBT Catholic group New Ways Ministry, shares that sentiment.

"Pope Francis certainly has gone further than any previous pope in trying to be positive towards people whose relationships are outside of the traditional heterosexual, nuclear family model, and he is to be commended for that," he wrote on that organization's blog. "His refreshing new attitude still offers great hope for possibility and change in the future."

Others, though, believe the pope's words carry little opportunity for advancing the conversation on LGBT issues.

Writing at Slate, Tyler Lopez expressed the belief that "the pope’s words are calculated, precise, and unforgiving. Same-sex families are not legitimate in the eyes of the Vatican."

"Being exceedingly careful not to issue any errant endorsements of a loving commitment between same-sex partners, the pope only suggests that the Vatican should examine and evaluate the circumstances of governmentally recognized relationships," he wrote.

In a blog post for the Catholic magazine Commonweal, Lisa Fullam commented that because the pope has raised these questions, he'll soon have to provide some answers.

"At some point, Pope Francis is going to have to settle some of the questions he's raised, whether that of how to enhance women's authority in the Church without ordaining them or that of where he stands now on same-sex civil marriage. Until then, perhaps the best thing Catholics can do is to continue to talk about the matters the Pope raises," she said.

The early same-sex marriage advocate and Catholic Andrew Sullivan wrote at The Dish that gay Catholics have been invited to be part of a conversation with the pope.

"But the challenge now for gay Catholics, it seems to me, is engaging in this conversation, telling our truths to our fellow believers, and seeking a way for the church to reconcile its teachings of the equal dignity of all human persons with its demand that gay people lead lives without intimacy or close family at all. Francis has invited us in; we should take him up on the offer," he said.

Contributor: 
Michael O'Loughlin