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Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, has called for lay governments to allow same-sex couples to enter civil unions.
It’s a statement that, if not later “amended” or “clarified” by the Vatican, would mark a revolutionary shift in church doctrine as it pertains to the acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex relationships.
The pope made the comments in a new documentary, Francesco, by Evgeny Afineevsky, which chronicles his approach to pressing and often controversial social issues and his outreach to marginalized groups of people who live, according to the pope, “on the existential peripheries.”
Francesco, which premiered Oct. 21 as part of the Rome Film Festival and is scheduled to make its North American premiere on Sunday, examines the pope’s advocacy for migrants and refugees and the poor, as well as his work on the issue of clerical sexual abuse and his stances on the role of women in society and LGBTQ individuals.
The comments on civil unions were part of the section of the documentary relating to how the pontiff views members of the LGBTQ community, according to the Catholic News Agency.
“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 says in the film.
“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered,” he says.
“I stood up for that,” he added, apparently referring to his time as a cardinal in his native Argentina when he clashed with the liberal government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner over plans to legalize same-sex marriage.
As Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Francis was one of the leading voices condemning the Argentine marriage equality law, but, according to The New York Times, advocated for civil unions as a compromise measure among a behind-the-scenes meeting of Catholic bishops.
When he was first named pope, many more liberal Catholics pointed to that instance as just one example of his willingness to seek compromise and his less doctrinaire approach to religion, focused on living according to the spirit of the church’s values and beliefs.
“If this is true, it could mark a real shift in the Vatican’s approach to same-sex couples and same-sex unions. We need access to the full film and to know the context of the comments,” Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, an organization representing LGBTQ Catholics, told Metro Weekly in an interview.
“In some ways, this would not be Francis’s first signal that civil unions could be acceptable,” she added, pointing to his comments from his time as a cardinal in Argentina. “I think we’re very much at the beginning of understanding what’s going on. This could be anything from a significant breakthrough in church police in terms of legal recognition for same-sex relationships, to a negotiating stance. As the international community moves forward in recognizing marriage equality as a human right, is this an attempt to put the brakes on that movement by offering some legal protections but still not full equality for same-sex couples?
“Given that we haven’t had a Vatican response yet, it’s hard to know what is going on,” Duddy-Burke added. “We’re fairly used to having statements like this ‘clarified’ or walked back. So we’re going to have to see how this unfolds over the next several days.
“We have to be careful about understanding how this comment, or quote from a film, fit in with the fact that Vatican teaching is still that any same-sex relationship is ‘intrinsically evil,’ she added. “This is the struggle that our Church has in how to deal with LGBTQ people and our families…. I think about the way in which the world has moved fairly rapidly in recognizing marriage equality as a fundamental human right, in many places. And how does the Church deal with that?”
New Ways Ministry, another LGBTQ Catholic organization, welcomed Francis’s comments as a sign of progress.
“It is an historic moment when the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, long seen as a persecutor of LGBTQ people, moves in such a supportive direction for lesbian/gay couples and their families,” Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, said in a statement. “It signals that the church is continuing to develop more positively its approach to LGBTQ issues.”
But DeBernardo also urged the pope to go further in recognizing and blessing same-sex unions, which he noted would align with the views of many rank-and-file Catholics.
“Bishops, priests, and theologians in the German-speaking church have been making strong calls for blessing same-gender couples for several years now. The Synodal Way process in Germany may issue its support of recognizing and blessing these unions in the church early next year,” he added. “Traditionally Catholic nations have one-by-one been passing civil union and marriage equality laws for a while now. Among them: Argentina, Austria. Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ireland, Malta, Mexico (in part), Portugal, Spain, and Uruguay. Such recognition shows that overwhelming majorities of Catholic citizens support legal protections for same-gender couples.”
DeBernardo also noted that, if allowed to stand as is, the pope’s comments could potentially have an impact on an upcoming Supreme Court case, Fulton v. Philadelphia case, in which the city of Philadelphia ended its contract with Catholic Social Services over CSS’s refusal to place children with prospective foster or adoptive parents who are same-sex couples.
“The pope’s statement could have a great impact on a case in which the rights of legally married lesbian and gay couples to adopt or foster children from Catholic social service agencies is at issue,” he noted. “If the pope supports such couples, what should prevent lower-level Catholic officials from doing so?
“[But] This statement will have an effect beyond church discussions and legal debates. When the pope says something positive about LGBTQ issues, he sends forth an enormous wave of goodwill to LGBTQ people, and, at the same time, teaches a positive lesson to people whose anti-LGBTQ views are religiously-based,” DeBernardo said. “It is no overstatement to say that with this statement not only has the pope protected LGBTQ couples and families, but he also will save many LGBTQ lives.”
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