"Did Pope Francis discard Church doctrine when he spoke about same-sex union?"
What did Pope Francis really say in that documentary made by Evgeny Afinevsky and what did he mean by it? This is the question that came to mind after a war of words erupted over a statement the Pontiff made. Actually, it was part of a collection of remarks and opinions he has issued on a range of subjects, including that on gay couples over the years.
Did he really make a clean break and discarded the Catholic Church’s long-standing doctrine about the subject? Has he finally seen the light, and come to terms with the LGBT community’s proposition that same-sex unions/marriages are well within the ambit of Church teachings?
Concerned church people said that the Pope may have breached the 2003 document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XIV) stating that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”
That document went further and noted that politicians’ support of same-sex unions is “gravely immoral” and that “legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity. The church cannot fail to defend these values.”
These are very powerful statements not amenable to any kind of accommodation, even in the name of the basic Christian values of forgiveness and compassion.
Well, the simple answer is No. Pope Francis did not contradict doctrinal teachings. Neither did he say anything which can be construed by any measure as deviating from that 2003 doctrinal issuance. He was simply restating earlier pronouncements he made as the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires in which he advised the need for “mercy and compassion” towards LGBTs.
Said then-Cardinal Bergolio in his many encounters with the LGBT community:
“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.”
That reference to a civil union law which is captured in the film ignited this raging debate. But as noted in an explainer article written by Colleeen Dulle in America: The Jesuit Review “civil union law” does not in any way refer to homosexual marriages. It partakes of protection under the law.
Quoting Argentine journalist Elizabeth Pique, Dulle advised that the English subtitles in the documentary were not faithful to what Pope Francis said in the clip. The discrepancy, Dulle quotes Pique, comes down to Pope Francis referring to a law of “convivencia civil,” or “civil cohabitating,” which critics argue is different from the subtitles’ use of “civil union.” But as Pique said, the two terms are often used interchangeably in Argentina when speaking about laws.
This message of understanding and compassion is what Pope Francis brings to the fore. Not one of rigidity and condemnation. Echoing Pope Francis, Cardinal William Levada who succeeded Pope Benedict as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithful, in quoting another adviser to the Pope, Boston Archbishop Cardinal Sean O’Malley, said: “Our task..is to show people that we love them and care about them and that together we can strive to be better people, more generous, more courageous and more faithful to what God is calling us to do.”
That “welcoming and respectful message towards the LGBT community” is what the Pontiff teaches not the alteration of official doctrine. As Dulle noted, it does not partake of “infallible papal definitions of dogma and official teachings in an encyclical.” It is an offshoot of an interview superimposed with statements made by the Pontiff when he was still the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
As Cardinal Levada said, Pope Francis was simply “speaking positively of civil unions without being concerned that such an endorsement is tantamount to an approval of same-sex marriage, which he continues to oppose.” This is consistent with his famous statement “Who am I to judge?” on gay priests, as well as his statement to a group of parents of LGBT children that God loves these children.
Cardinal O’Malley added that Pope Francis has “strongly and consistently taught that marriage is between a man and woman for a lifetime and that this is God’s plan for having and raising children.” The cardinal added that “endorsement of civil unions is not an endorsement of homosexual activity,” and that the Pope is “very aware of the suffering and alienation of homosexual individuals, gay people, who are rejected by family and society.”
So, did Pope Francis discard the Church’s doctrine as contained in the 2003 issuance and is now an out-and-out promoter of same-sex marriage as some LGBT advocates are now shouting from the rooftops? No. Not at all.