As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis, a vehement opponent of same-sex marriage, in 2010 unsuccessfully urged fellow bishops to endorse recognition of same-sex civil unions as an alternative. And so his recent welcome statement to a filmmaker that he approves of same-sex civil union should come neither as a surprise, nor, reassuringly to conservatives, be seen as a harbinger of imminent church recognition of same-sex marriage.
“Homosexual people have a right to be in a family,” Pope Francis argued. “They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it.”
But the comments, which do not have the standing of church doctrine, mark an important reaffirmation of Pope Francis’s more liberal attitude to homosexuality – in 2013 he responded to questions about an allegedly gay priest by saying “Who am I to judge”, and has made clear that gay people must be treated with respect although apparently accepting church teaching that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”.
Pope Francis, however, has gone beyond the 2003 Vatican statement that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions”. And he explicitly accepts a same-sex union within the definition of “family”. The context of his comments also makes clear that he approves of same-sex adoption. That is a timely affirmation – in 10 days the US supreme court will hear arguments involving the refusal of a Catholic social service agency in Philadelphia to place foster children with same-sex couples.
Pope Francis has significantly shifted the tone of the church on homosexuality, but he has done little on policy yet. And the pushback will be hard-fought. "The pope's statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching," Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island responded. "The church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships . . . the legalisation of their civil unions, which seek to simulate holy matrimony, is not admissible."