Considered from the vantage point of pastoral care, Pope Francis’ recent approval of civil unions for same-sex couples, captured in the film documentary Francesco, can be taken as a positive, albeit small, step in the Catholic Church’s long and decidedly negative relationship with lesbian and gay people.  By reaffirming the stance he took on civil unions in Argentina while archbishop of Buenos Aires a decade ago, Francis is certainly living into his reputation as a religious leader who pays attention to the pastoral needs of Catholics and attempts, at least at some level, to make the church a more inclusive community of faith.

But civil marriage is not sacramental marriage and here’s the hard truth in Francis’ reiteration of his support for same-sex civil unions: in his eyes, the sacredness of the sacrament of marriage remains reserved for heterosexual couples.  While, in Francis’ words, homosexuals may “have a right to be a part of the family” since they are “children of God,” in no way do lesbian and gay couples have equal status with straight couples when it comes to marrying within the Catholic Church.

In short, it remains official church teaching that same-sex relationships cannot be considered “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (the definition of “sacrament” offered by The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1131).  Same-sex marriages that are rooted in the loving commitment between spouses, therefore, can never be deemed equal in value to loving and committed heterosexual relationships, which alone merit church sanction and blessing.

Furthermore, the pope’s comments in this documentary do nothing to change, or even temper, official Catholic doctrine that homosexual sex, even within a loving relationship, is always “intrinsically disordered.”  Again, in the words of the current Catechism (#2358), homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity” that are “contrary to the natural law [because] they close the sexual act to the gift of life [and] do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.”  As the final sentence in this section of the catechism concludes, “Under no circumstances can [homosexual acts] be approved.”

One has to wonder how the pope can offer his approval of civil unions for same-sex couples when, presumably, he must realize that most same-sex unions include sexual activity between the partners.  As some have noted, perhaps this is because the pope is playing into the long-standing – and increasingly invoked – division between “the sacred” and “the secular” evidenced in Vatican pronouncements: heterosexual sacramental marriages are equated with the “holy” while homosexual civil unions are something much less and, as such, are to be relegated to the secular, the sinful, that is, the “unholy.”

Still, if these unofficial remarks by the pope on the topic of same-sex civil unions are taken as a voice of support for the civil rights of lesbian and gay people in countries – and especially in predominantly Catholic countries – that is a good thing.  If one considers the plight, for instance, of queer people today in Ireland and Poland, two European countries with deep roots in Roman Catholicism, perhaps Francis’ comments can move the Polish government to follow the lead of Ireland in protecting the human rights of its LGBTQ citizens.

It is sometimes said that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is so slow to change its position on matters of doctrine because it is accustomed to think in terms of centuries rather than in mere decades.  That the church has in the past changed its position on doctrinal issues is clear (take, for example, official church teachings on the lending of money at interest, the place of Jewish people within Christian societies, or interreligious marriages), but in this day and age there is simply no excuse for a pope, especially one who touts his commitment to the basic Gospel values of love and inclusion, to take such incremental steps in righting the wrongs of the church with regard to its treatment of LGBTQ persons as well as other marginalized groups within the church, such as women, people of color, and divorced and remarried persons.

Pope Francis: we queer Catholics call upon you and the entire church to recognize and bless the many loving and committed marriages between people of the same gender.  As the first pope to sanction civil unions for same-sex couples, we challenge you to extend your oft-stated support for the marginalized of this world by recognizing our full humanity as children of our Incarnated God.  Know that our marriages are sacramental because they are embodied signs of God’s working in the world.  By recognizing our unions as sacred – and as sacrament – you can give truth to your words that everyone has “a right to be a part of the family” since we are all “children of God.”

Bernard Schlager, PhD (he/they) | CLGS Executive Director | 22 October 2020