Pope Francis is calling for the passage of civil union laws for same-sex couples. This is a significant departure from the position of the Vatican’s doctrinal office as well as the pope’s predecessors on this issue.
His remarks came as part of a documentary that premiered last night and reflects on pastoral care for those who identify as LGBT. “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.
He then spoke directly to the issue of same-sex marriage: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”
What the pope and Church have previously stated
According to the Catholic News Agency, the pope’s statement is a shift from his position in 2010, when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and opposed efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. In the 2013 book On Heaven and Earth, he did not reject civil unions outright but described laws “assimilating” homosexual relationships to marriage as “an anthropological regression.” He also expressed concern that if same-sex couples “are given adoption rights, there could be affected children. Every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.”
However, the National Catholic Reporter states that the pontiff has spoken in the past in favor of civil unions as a way to differentiate between Catholic marriages and relationships recognized by state authorities.
Conversely, under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) and at the direction of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) stated in 2003 that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognize, promote, and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society.”
The CDF added: “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, for the good of men and women and for the good of society itself.” The document called support for such unions by politicians “gravely immoral.”
It also stated: “Not even in a remote analogous sense do homosexual unions fulfil the purpose for which marriage and family deserve specific categorical recognition. On the contrary, there are good reasons for holding that such unions are harmful to the proper development of human society, especially if their impact on society were to increase.”
Three major questions
The pope’s statement has generated global headlines and raises a variety of related issues.
First, will his opinion change church doctrine?
The person who made the documentary said that in his view, the film is not “about” the pope’s call for civil unions but “about many other global issues.” He explained that he looks at Pope Francis “as a humble human being.” Nonetheless, when the pope speaks to an issue, even on a personal rather than official basis, his opinions can sway many in the Church and beyond.
Second, if the Church changes its position on same-sex marriage, will this affect its adoption agencies and related ministries?
Fulton v. Philadelphia is set for argument before the Supreme Court on November 4. The case concerns whether the city of Philadelphia had the right in 2018 to stop placing children with foster parents that partner with Catholic Social Services, since the agency cannot endorse same-sex or unmarried couples as agency partners. This is just one of many cases where Catholic agencies have faced discrimination for upholding the biblical definition of marriage. In light of the pope’s statement, will these agencies change their stance on this issue in the face of legal and cultural opposition?
Third, if the Church changes its position on homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage, how will this affect ministries who affirm biblical marriage?
Since the Supreme Court discovered a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in 2015, many have been concerned that the IRS could eventually question the tax-exempt status of religious entities who continue to uphold the biblical definition of marriage. As the Roman Catholic Church is one such entity, some have felt that, given the Church’s enormous size and political significance, it would be unlikely that the IRS would take such action. However, if the Church were to shift its stance, would other ministries be more likely to face this threat?
How to respond with biblical compassion
My purpose today is not to be an alarmist, since it is far too soon to know if the pope’s personal opinion will lead to any of these consequences. Rather, it is to note that, since the consequences of our personal beliefs are far larger than we might imagine, each of us should measure our opinions by biblical truth.
As I have previously written, God’s word clearly prohibits same-sex sexual activity (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:8–11) and defines marriage as the covenant between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:18–24; Matthew 19:4–6). (For more, see my paper on biblical answers to readers’ questions about these issues.)
It may seem compassionate and tolerant for evangelicals to endorse same-sex sexual relationships and marriage. Such a decision certainly shields us from the vilification we face in a culture that brands us as intolerant and homophobic.
However, it is not truly compassionate to endorse what the Bible forbids, since this offers people less than God’s best for them. Rather, we need to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) out of a desire that all people experience abundant life in Christ (John 10:10). And we need to speak such truth in a spirit of humility (Colossians 3:12) that admits our mutual brokenness (Romans 3:23) and offers hope and help in Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11).
In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis wrote: “It does not matter that I know I must become, in the eyes of every hostile reader, as it were personally responsible for all the sufferings I try to explain.” Then he added, “But it matters enormously if I alienate anyone from the truth.”
I pray that we would not “alienate anyone from the truth” today, but that we will lead them to the Truth (John 14:6).
Will you join me?