Pope Francis and Civil Unions: Be Not Afraid!

COMMENTARY: Scripture, sacred Tradition and our Catechism all agree: Sexual activity must be confined to a lawfully married husband and wife.

Pope Francis speaks during the Wednesday general audience inside the San Damaso Courtyard of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, Sept. 30, 2020.
Pope Francis speaks during the Wednesday general audience inside the San Damaso Courtyard of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, Sept. 30, 2020. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez / CNA)

Many of our friends from a variety of faith traditions have contacted the Ruth Institute regarding the recent statements attributed to Pope Francis regarding the Church’s position on civil unions for same-sex couples. I have one statement and two messages.

The statement is very simple: Pope Francis has not changed the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church.

My messages are very simple, too: 

1.  Do not be diverted. 

2.  Do not be demoralized. 

Let me explain. 

I can tell you with 100% confidence that Pope Francis has not changed the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church on the immorality of homosexual acts or on the true nature of marriage being the life-giving union between a man and a woman or anything else. How can I be so sure? Because he does not have the authority to change the teaching. 

Every Catholic schoolchild is taught that the pope is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. As a child, I was taught, as many of you were, that the pope can be wrong if he predicts who is going to win the World Series. As an adult, I extended that simple thought: When the pope makes personnel appointments or does foreign policy, he can be wrong, sometimes disastrously so. And, when he gives interviews to journalists with agendas, he certainly can be wrong. 

In fact, there are levels of “magisterial-ness,” if you want to call it that. Some writings of the pope carry more weight than others. Look closely at this resource, which explains various levels of doctrinal authority. You will not see “random papal statements to tendentious journalists who cut and paste the pope’s words to his own liking” anywhere on the list. 

But what did Pope Francis really mean to say? I have no idea. I don’t think it is productive to try to “explain” or “explain away” his latest confusing statements. I do have some thoughts about what he and those around him may be trying to accomplish. 

I believe the Pope and his advisers are well aware that he does not have the authority to change the teaching. The Vatican has in effect, suggestedthat the teaching has changed. The Vatican held a reception honoring the filmmaker.  The Vatican Press office initially ordered silence about the controversy. The following week, the  Vatican Secretary of State issued a “clarification” that the average person most likely neither heard nor understood. The net result: people continue to hold the incorrect impression that the Church’s teaching has “progressed” on the matter of homosexuality. 

I can think of two possible explanations for why they might do this. First, they are positioning themselves as heroes to the gay-friendly world media, by appearing to move the mean old, nasty, out-of-touch Catholic Church out of the darkness and into the Modern Sunlight. You could think of this as a bright shiny object that attracts everyone’s attention. 

Meanwhile, they divert attention from the clergy sexual abuse cover-up, including the newly-released but long-delayed McCarrick Report. While the release of this report is an important step, many questions remain. It focuses on how people above McCarrick in the ecclesial ladder missed the numerous red flags.  But so far absent is the all-important question of the networks of people below McCarrick. People who owe their careers and other benefits to McCarrick may still have secrets, still be causing problems, and may still be flying under the radar. I do not know how to get to the bottom of something like this. But that makes it all the more important that we remain vigilant.

This is why my first message to faithful Catholics is: Do not be diverted. Take every opportunity to steer the conversation back to our insistence that the Vatican continue becoming more transparent. Do not allow another confusing papal statement to change the subject away from this important topic. 

The second possible explanation for this latest episode of Vatican-induced doctrinal confusion is to demoralize the remaining faithful Catholics who love the Church’s teachings and are trying to defend them. The sexual revolutionaries would love to completely take over the Catholic Church and put an end to our resistance to their ideology. As we all know, the Church’s ancient teaching is one of the last remaining bulwarks against the continued crimes of the Sexual Revolution. 

This brings me to my second message: Do not be demoralized. 

Demoralizing one’s opponents is an important aspect of psychological warfare. Do not give them the satisfaction of being discouraged or upset. Do you have a right to be angry? You bet. Is it in your interest to be discouraged? Absolutely not. 

Catholics who wholly embrace Catholic teaching may find it painful to realize that the Church, the bride of Christ, has been corrupted by the worst sort of sexual revolutionaries. I agree. It is painful. It is also a fact. However, we are not alone. Pretty much every profession and every sector of society, and yes, pretty much every church, has been corrupted by the Sexual Revolution. 

The Church’s teaching is good and true. Scripture, sacred Tradition and our Catechism all agree. Sexual activity must be confined to a lawfully married husband and wife. This teaching belongs to all of us. The Pope has a responsibility to defend it. So does every bishop and every priest. And so, dear friends, do we as baptized Catholics. We have every right and responsibility to defend the teaching. If the hierarchy refuses to defend the teaching, it is all the more important that we do so. 

Remember: Pope Francis does not have the authority to change Church teaching. He knows this. The media’s barely-concealed glee that the Catholic Church is ‘progressing’ is a distraction. We should work together to get the conversation back where it belongs, which is that the Vatican needs to be fully transparent about clergy sex abuse and harassment, and the role that homosexuality among the clergy plays in this. 

Everything else is a distraction. In the immortal words of the late great Pope St. John Paul II: Be not afraid!