Pope Francis signalled his support for members of the LGBT community to enter civil unions in a new documentary released on October 21. It was not the first time.
Francis has spoken up for civil unions before, as he reminded the film’s interviewer. “I stood up for that,” he said. And, he did – both when he mentioned civil unions in 2017 and before that in 2014. He was supportive of civil unions prior to the papacy too, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
So in an important sense, there is nothing to see here – nothing new. Yet Francis’ message here does matter.
Justice for all
The pope’s support for civil unions does not change Catholic doctrine about marriage or sexuality. The church still teaches – and will go on teaching – that any sexual relationship outside marriage is sinful and that, in the Catholic view, marriage – different from civil unions – is between a man and a woman.
Really, Pope Francis’ call for civil unions is a way to express what Catholics believe about human dignity in response to new social and political conditions that have brought rapidly changed attitudes toward the LGBT community across the last two decades. Pope Francis is calling on Catholics to take note that they have to be concerned about justice for all people, including those in the LGBT community.
Some Catholics already are voicing their displeasure, fearing the pope’s comments will sow confusion. Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, went so far as to criticise Pope Francis for “contradict[ing] what has been the long-standing teaching of the church”.
But as a scholar of the Catholic Church and society, I believe there is a firm foundation to say that what Pope Francis says on civil unions grows directly from church teaching. The “law of love embraces the entire human family and knows no limits,” the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Vatican office concerned with social issues, said in its 2005 compilation of the church’s social thought.
Back in 2006, the United States Catholic bishops recognised that LGBT people “have been, and often continue to be, objects of scorn, hatred, and even violence”. And, those things that express our care for other human persons – “especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” by the indifference or oppression of others – represent obligations that faithful Catholics embrace.
In these ways, Catholics owe a duty of justice to the LGBT community.
One way this duty of justice can be expressed is through the support of political and legal rights for all. As much as Catholics believe that governments should recognise a right to private property, they can believe that people in committed relationships should enjoy a legally protected ability to transfer their property as they wish.
Because Catholics believe in being present with the sick or the dying – what the church calls a corporal work of mercy – it follows that people should not be kept from their loved ones’ bedsides because of legal barriers. That can and does happen if someone’s partner is not recognised in law as next of kin. Likewise, because someone is from the LGBT community, they should not be excluded from the human community or the love of another person.
LGBT people also have a right to be a part of families, as they have a right to be free from discrimination and prejudice. As Pope Francis said in the new documentary, “Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable.”
Reacting to societal change
The rapid change that has happened in prevailing social attitudes about the LGBT community in recent decades has been a hard thing to process for a church that has never reacted quickly. This is especially because the questions those developments raise touch on a grey area where moral teaching meets social realities outside the church – such as arguments about the contraceptive mandate and the use of condoms.
This meeting between social issues or concerns and the church is often a meeting of ragged edges that can produce friction.
Yet, church leaders have been working on the problem of reconciling the church with the modern world, and Pope Francis is not stepping in places where other Catholic bishops have not already trod.
In 2018, German bishops reacting to the legalisation of gay marriage acknowledged that acceptance of LGBT relationships is a new “political reality”.
“I am not for ‘marriage for all,’” said Münster auxiliary Bishop Dieter Geerlings, “but if two homosexuals enter a same-sex relationship, if they want to take responsibility for each other, then I can bless this mutual responsibility.”
Osnabrück Bishop Franz-Josef Bode agreed, “We could think about giving them a blessing.”
The challenge the Vatican faces is to imagine the space that the church can occupy in this new reality, as it has had to do in the face of numerous social and political changes over the years. But the imperative, as Francis suggests, is to serve justice and to seek justice for all people.
Catholics – including bishops, and even the pope – can think, and are thinking, imaginatively about that challenge.
Steven P Millies is an Associate Professor of Public Theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.