“In a documentary that premiered Wednesday in Rome, Pope Francis called for the passage of civil union laws for same-sex couples, departing from the position of the Vatican’s doctrinal office and the Pope’s predecessors on the issue,” the Catholic News Agency (CNA) reports.
“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered,” the Pope said. “I stood up for that.”
The documentary, Francesco, will have its North American premiere this weekend.
In the documentary, the Pope takes the same stance he advocated when he was known as Cardinal Bergoglio, head of the church in Argentina, during a same-sex marriage debate. As CNA reported in 2010, while he was then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis opposed efforts to legalise same-sex marriage.
In a previously disputed claim, Sergio Rubin, the future pope’s biographer, suggested Francis supported civil unions as a way to prevent the adoption of same-sex marriage in Argentina. Catholic press reports denied this.
But the Pope’s latest comments in the Francesco documentary, saying “I stood up” – in the past tense – suggest he confirms that, privately at least, he supported civil unions during the Argentine marriage debate.
There are parallels here with some of the comments made by “no” case activists during Australia’s marriage plebiscite.
During the first Rudd government, civil unions and formal equality for the LGBT communities was Labor policy.*
The conservative National Catholic Reporter headline makes an important point “Not news: Pope Francis has supported civil unions for years.”
Their Rome correspondent Joshua J. McElwee reports: “Francis expressed such a view in 2017 as part of an interview with the French author Dominique Wolton. Asked then about the possibility of marriage for same-sex couples, the Pope replied: “Let’s call this ‘civil unions.’ We do not joke around with truth.”
“The Pope also spoke about civil unions in a 2014 interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, in which he acknowledged that states passing civil union laws were primarily doing so in order to provide same-sex partners [with] legal rights.”
The Pope’s comments in Francesco also go to the issue that drove the “yes” cases in marriage debates – the question of dignity. In many marriage debates, support for Civil Unions reflects a desire to offer dignity, but still oppose the redefinition of marriage – the central cause of the “no’ case.
“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 said in the film, of his approach to pastoral care (as CNA reports).
The previous Vatican stance opposed civil unions.
In 2003, under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and at the direction of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith taught that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognise, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society.”
* Taking the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) – one of the longest lived campaigning organisations on the issue of same sex marriage – as an example they gave evidence in 2009 to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee: “You will also be aware that the Australian Christian Lobby did not oppose the introduction of relationship registers in Tasmania and here in Victoria […]. We do not want to see homosexuals treated badly. We do not want to see homosexuals discriminated against in the areas of finance and property. But marriage is not an issue that we would want to see changed.”
However they opposed the actual 2006 Civil Unions Act in the ACT, believing that it was too close to marriage.
The ACL stance was opposed by another conservative Christian group Salt Shakers, for supporting recognition of same sex relationships in law.
The differences in the Vatican, between Pope Francis and his predecessor, follow a similar pattern.