Pope Francis on Homosexual Unions

In 2010, Cardinal Bergoglio spoke out forcefully against homosexual "marriage." What was his position on "civil unions" for homosexuals?
In 2010, Cardinal Bergoglio spoke out forcefully against homosexual "marriage." What was his position on "civil unions" for homosexuals? (photo: Register Files)

There have been a flurry of stories reporting that, in 2010, when he was still a cardinal, Pope Francis supported the idea of civil unions for homosexuals.

What are we to make of this?


Getting the Facts

A starting point is trying to get the facts on the matter, as best they can be known.

According to press accounts, back in 2010 when the Argentine government was in the process of approving homosexual "marriage," then-Cardinal Bergoglio suggested the possibility of civil unions for homosexuals as a way of keeping homosexual marriage from being made legal.

He was absolutely adamant on the impermissibility of homosexual marriage, stating:

In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family…

At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God's law engraved in our hearts.

This is not simply a political struggle, but an attempt to destroy God's plan. It is not just a bill but a move of the Father of Lies, who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God."

Apparently, his discussion of civil unions occurred in a meeting among the Argentine bishops in which they were strategizing how to block homosexual marriage.

The others, apparently, voted against Cardinal Bergoglio's suggestion, and it wasn't acted on publicly.

Some, including a homosexual activist, have said that the cardinal discussed it with them in private, however.



Now that he's been elected pope, some are trying to spin this as evidence of him being "flexible" on the issue and open to "dialogue" on the subject and as "seeking compromise" and "reach[ing] out across the ideological spectrum"--all ostensibly being signs that he may propose the same thing as pope, presumably on a global scale.

The same voices have also been contrasting this approach with the inflexible approach of Pope Benedict.

Let's deal first with the core issue and then the spin that's being put on it.


Homosexual Unions in Church Teaching

The most specific magisterial document on homosexual unions is called Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons. It was published in 2003 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Among other things, it states:

The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour 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.

Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, 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.

So the Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons "cannot lead in any way to approval" of civil unions or, worse yet, homosexual "marriage."

The position reportedly advanced in 2010 by then-Cardinal Bergoglio would seem to be at variance with this . . . or would it?


The Abortion Parallel

Consider the following statement:

The Church teaches that respect for the rights of women cannot lead in any way to approval of abortion or to legal recognition of a right to abortion.

That would be a fair summary of Church teaching.

But would it follow from this statement that a Catholic politician could never vote for a law that has provisions allowing for abortion?


What John Paul II Said

In his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II taught:

[W]hen it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.

This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects [no. 73].

So the Church acknowledges that there are situations in which a Catholic can support a law that contains abortion provisions provided there is no way to completely get rid of these, provided his opposition to abortion is known, and provided he is trying to limit the harm that the law is doing.

This is similar to the case of pro-lifers in America endorsing various legal restrictions on abortion (e.g., de-funding it, informed consent, fetal pain laws, zoning laws, parental consent, partial-birth abortion bans) as a way of limiting the harm of abortion, given that it's impossible to get rid of it in one swoop.

Can this kind of reasoning apply to homosexual unions?


Limiting the Harm of Homosexual Union Laws

According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the same kind of reasoning can apply:

When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic lawmaker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.

When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is already in force, the Catholic politician must oppose it in the ways that are possible for him and make his opposition known; it is his duty to witness to the truth.

If it is not possible to repeal such a law completely, the Catholic politician, recalling the indications contained in the Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, “could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality”, on condition that his “absolute personal opposition” to such laws was clear and well known and that the danger of scandal was avoided [Evangelium Vitae 73].

This does not mean that a more restrictive law in this area could be considered just or even acceptable; rather, it is a question of the legitimate and dutiful attempt to obtain at least the partial repeal of an unjust law when its total abrogation is not possible at the moment.


Two Situations

The CDF document envisions two situations:
  • In the first, it speaks of when recognizing homosexual unions is first proposed in a legislative body and it says that, in that case, Catholic lawmakers must vote against such a law.
  • In the second, homosexual unions have already been given legal recognition and the effort is underway to try to limit their harm since it is not possible to get rid of this recognition altogether.


The Argentine Situation

In 2010, the situation Argentina fell somewhere between these two.
  • Unlike the first situation, this was not the first time that legal recognition was proposed for homosexual unions. As early as 2002, legal recognition had been given to civil unions in Cardinal Bergoglio's own city of Buenos Aires, and such unions had been making dramatic strides in subsequent years.
  • Unlike the second situation, full-blown legal recognition of the unions as marriages was not yet in force on a national basis (though various courts had already started approving them in 2009).
In that the case, it could be licit to try to stop the full-blown national recognition of homosexual marriage by tolerating a lesser form of legal recognition (i.e., civil unions) as a stopgap measure to prevent the even worse situation from happening.

After all, it would be vastly harder to roll back a homosexual marriage law once it's in force than to stop it from coming into force.

If the only way to stop it from coming into force would be to tolerate a less-bad form of legal recognition then that would seem permissible.


Cardinal Bergoglio's Proposal?

Cardinal Bergoglio thus may have entertained the idea of civil unions as a last, desperate stopgap measure to prevent full-blown homosexual marriage from being inflicted on Argentina.

He may have floated the idea to his fellow bishops, who ultimately decided that it wasn't the way to go on the issue.

He may have mentioned it privately in discussions with homosexual activists, as a kind of trial balloon, to see if they would be willing to accept it in place of homosexual marriage.

It's hard to know what happened in these situations, and I'm not going to take an activist's word about what happened in a private discussion of which we have no transcript. It's too easy for partisans to slant what may have been said--or even engage in outright fabrications.

I prefer to go with what a person has chosen to say in public, on record, in a verifiable way.


A Desperate Expedient?

It's clear that Cardinal Bergoglio in no way approves of homosexual marriage, which he attributed to the Devil. That's a remarkably blunt statement.

If he privately floated the idea of civil unions as a way of stopping full-blown homosexual marriage, I would see this as a last, desperate expedient and not suppose that he viewed such unions as a positive thing, just as a less-horrible thing.

I certainly wouldn't see it as evidence that he was "seeking compromise" or being "flexible" or open to "dialogue" on established moral principles.

I would instead assume that he was trying to prevent an even worse situation from coming about and seeking to apply to the particular situation in Argentina the principles the Magisterium had already established.


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