A handful of Vatican officials and even a cardinal have recently voiced opinions that appear to be supportive of civil unions between people of the same sex, despite the Church’s teaching being clearly against homosexual acts and cohabitation/premarital sexual relations.
The majority of statements have been quickly repudiated by the archbishops in question, who have argued that their comments have been misinterpreted, but the Church’s opponents have capitalized on the confusion.
On April 8, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, reportedly told an audience in London that same-sex relationships should be respected and recognized in law.
"There can be same-sex partnerships, and they need respect and even civil-law protection," he was reported as saying. But he asked that it be kept "away from the notion of marriage" because the definition of marriage "is the stable union between a man and a woman open to life."
The cardinal’s office later stressed he was not in any way endorsing homosexual civil unions. "The cardinal sees the need to give thought to the question of pastoral care for people living in irregular situations — to truly apply, not to rethink, what the Church has to say about a life in Christ," his spokesman, Michael Prueller, told the Register May 15.
At a Vatican press conference in February, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, called for "greater efforts to ensure legal protection and inheritance rights for people who are living together but not married," and he said that "legal means must be found to guarantee rights and regulate inheritance."
"But do not call it marriage," the archbishop said, according to a CNS article.
He said if a country "outlawed homosexuality, I would work to overturn it," adding that he believed there are still "20 or 25 countries that define homosexuality as a crime."
Archbishop Paglia later said he was surprised by reports saying he was supportive of civil unions for homosexual couples, adding that his comments were "derailed." He argued that he was calling for individual rights to be protected using existing legal systems and not giving "approval of certain possibilities."
However, by that time, the misinterpretation had been widely circulated, and same-sex-rights groups exploited the confusion to their own advantage.
In 2011, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, told reporters at a press conference that civil partnerships, the U.K. name for civil unions, "actually provide a structure in which people of the same sex who want a lifelong relationship [and] a lifelong partnership can find their place and protection and legal provision." But like Cardinal Schönborn, he stressed that that is not the same as marriage and insisted it was not for the state to change the institution of marriage.
More recently, Archbishop Piero Marini, who served for 18 years as Pope John Paul II’s liturgical master of ceremonies, said in a published report that the Church should recognize civil unions for people of the same sex.
Arguing that the Church and state should not be enemies of one another, he said: "In these discussions, it’s necessary, for instance, to recognize the union of persons of the same sex, because there are many couples that suffer because their civil rights aren’t recognized. What can’t be recognized is that this [union] is equivalent to marriage."
Swiss theologian Father Martin Rhonheimer stated in an April 22 interview with Catholic News Agency that same-sex unions and those who promote them discriminate against married heterosexual couples.
"Besides containing an erroneous moral message," said Father Rhonheimer, who teaches political philosophy and ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, "it actually means to objectively discriminate against married people, who intentionally have engaged in a union ordered towards the task of the transmission of human life, accepting all the burdens and responsibilities of this task."
"Conferring legal equality to same-sex unions signifies to publicly establish, in the law system, the principle of dissociation of sexuality and procreation," he added.
When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio appeared to favor civil unions as a kind of lesser of two evils. However, a confidant had said he would never have supported civil unions for homosexual couples: "He certainly would have referred to unions of convenience, but not that anything be legalized," said Miguel Woites, a personal friend of the Pope. He was fiercely opposed to same-sex "marriage" legislation and has not spoken on the issue of civil unions as Pope.
The Vatican declined to comment on the issue when contacted by the Register.
The Church’s teaching on civil unions for homosexual couples is clear.
In a 2003 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons," the Vatican said, "Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil."
The document, authored by the future Pope Benedict XVI, prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, added: "In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty."
The Vatican further stressed that "one must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection."
In an address in 2006, Benedict XVI said: "It is a serious error to obscure the value and roles of the legitimate family founded on marriage by attributing legal recognition to other improper forms of union for which there is really no effective social need."
In comments to the Register, Father Antonio Porras, a professor of moral theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, stressed that the comments favoring civil unions by a few Church leaders are opinions and can’t be placed "on the same level as a note from the CDF."
He referred to Familiaris Consortio, Blessed John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation on the role of the family in the modern world, which examined the different contexts of civil unions, but only considered those between a man and a woman. The document argues there is only one truth about marriage and family.
Church leaders with a high level of responsibility need to be "more prudent" in their statements, Father Porras said. He added that the Church must be sensitive to the concerns of homosexuals, as she has concern for all people (he referred to the CDF’s 1986 "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons"). But he stressed that such concern "doesn’t mean to call good what is evil and what harms them."
"The Church’s concern for them is shown by the way she realizes the difficulties they face in their Christian lives and helps them to live their circumstances in the life of Christ," he said. The Church’s mission is to bring the means of salvation through Christ to all people, he added, and that is why "she calls attention to those behaviors that cannot be compatible with a Christian life."
"But all this doesn’t mean that the Church close her doors to people who commit these sins," he continued. "The pastoral activity of the Church is to try to help people avoid all the circumstances that separate them from the life Christ gained for us on the cross."
Catholic politicians defending traditional marriage on the frontline of European politics have been disheartened by the bishops’ remarks.
Luca Volontè, president of the European Peoples’ Party in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, told the Register he didn’t want his comments to be inferred as a criticism of any particular Church figure, but he said he had "no idea why certain personalities within the Church make contributions to the current debate on the family that can at best be described as ‘unhelpful.’"
Said Father Rhonheimer, "Any attempt of proving the equality, in social and political terms, of heterosexual and homosexual unions is vain, simply because homosexual unions are by their very nature non-procreative."