Pope Francis’ support for same-sex civil unions –
a challenge to Church practice
Waterford News and Star newspaper column from Liam Power
Pope Francis’ recent remarks on support for civil unions for gay couples created ‘a global media firestorm’ according to one commentator. His words were warmly welcomed by a diverse range of voices, including Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General, gay Catholics such as broadcaster Ursula Halligan, and parents of gay children like Mary McAleese. Ursula Halligan pointed out, that until Pope Francis spoke, gay members weren’t just left outside the faith community but ‘enjoined to silence about the reality of (their) lives.’ Likewise, many Catholic parents who love their gay children unconditionally felt reassured. These are parents who have been very conflicted by the Church’s teaching that gay relationships are, as the teaching says, intrinsically disordered.
On the other hand, Francis’ approach has been harshly criticised by some senior churchmen. Bishop Strickland in Texas, for example, opined that papal support for civil unions was “confusing and very dangerous.” He is representative of bishops and priests who oppose any move that might be interpreted as a softening of the church’s teaching on the objectively disordered nature of expressions of gay love.
Francis did not change any doctrine; he unwaveringly supports Church teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman. But when viewed in light of a decree issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2003, we begin to appreciate how radically challenging Francis stance is. The decree declared that “…respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way… to legal recognition of homosexual unions.” The shift in attitude has major pastoral significance.
Perhaps we can only appreciate its full import when we reflect on Francis’ words in light of his many symbolic actions vis-a-vis the gay community throughout his pontificate. I cite just three.
Pope Francis met with Fr James Martin SJ on Sept. 30th, 2019, in what was seen as a highly significant public statement of support and encouragement for the US Jesuit. He is well known for his ministry to LGBT community. He was awarded a prize for a book he wrote on building bridges between the Church and the gay community. It has been reported that Pope Francis read the book before meeting with Fr James.
(Fr Martin was invited to speak at the world Meeting of Families in Dublin in 2018. During his talk, he said that “gays have been treated like lepers by the Church. They have been mocked, insulted, excluded or singled out for critique either privately or from the pulpit.” He urged Catholics to see LGBT people in their totality and not to focus on their sexual identity. He pleaded that LGBT community members should, like everyone else in the parish who does not live up to the Gospel, be invited into ministries such as that of lector or music ministry or minsters of the Eucharist etc.).
The pope’s response to a letter he received from a gay catholic lawyer from Argentina, Andrea Rubera, was also highly symbolic. The lawyer wrote to the pope telling him that he and his partner had adopted three children and hoped to bring them up as Catholic. Francis telephoned the lawyer, telling him his letter was beautiful, and urged the parents to introduce the children to the parish.
Just two weeks ago Francis announced that he was appointing Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington to the College of Cardinals. Dr. Gregory has staunchly opposed racism and supported pastoral outreach to the gay community. He has stated publicly that “the distinction that our Church makes between orientation and behaviour” is one “which admittedly needs re-examination and development.” His appointment as Cardinal implies papal approval of his position.
But, reviewing the Pope’s support for gay civil unions in light of his overall pastoral outreach to the gay community, it is fair to ask if Francis is pushing out the boundaries and preparing the ground for reform. It might not be overstating the case to argue that he is hinting at the need for consistency between the terms of official doctrine and the research findings of Scripture scholars, moral theologians and scientists. Scripture scholars have alerted us to the paucity of references to homosexuality in the Bible e (only seven in total, four in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament.) Applying modern methods of exegesis, scholars believe that the biblical passages usually cited do not themselves condemn homosexual relations between two loving adults in a committed relationship. For example, some hold that, in Romans 1:26-27, when it is viewed in context, St Paul is condemning sex practices associated with a pagan cult (the Cult of Isis) and not homosexuality as such. Similarly, in 1Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul is condemning abusive sexual activity such as pederasty, rather than loving relationships.
Highly regarded moral theologians such as Lisa Sowle Cahill and the late Richard McCormick SJ have argued persuasively that a person who is “irreversibly” homosexual and not called to celibacy, must make a conscience decision about how to live before God. McCormick insisted that this individual decision must be respected by all. Cahill, while accepting that “heterosexual marriage is the normative context for couples,” argues along similar lines.
Scientific research suggests strongly that being gay or lesbian is a non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. If that is so, Church doctrine needs reformulation in a way that comes to terms with this and to bring it into line with contemporary moral theology and Scriptural scholarship.