BEM Explainer: What Do Pope Francis’ Statements About Civil Unions Mean?

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In the newly released documentary film Francesco, Pope Francis makes the statement that individuals who identify as LGBT are “children of God and have a right to a family.” In addition, the pope makes statements in support of civil union laws, saying the laws are necessary to ensure that LGBT families “are legally covered.”

Where did the footage come from?

The comments were from a previously-unaired segment of an interview given in May of 2019 with Mexican broadcaster Televisa. While the Vatican has insisted the comments are nothing new, neither Televisa or the Vatican aired the comments when broadcasting the interview. It isn’t unusual for the Vatican to edit the pope in official videos and/or transcripts when he makes comments on controversial or sensitive topics, however in this case, they retained the original footage, which was made available to Francesco filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky when the Vatican archives were opened for him.

Why are the pope’s comments controversial?

The pope’s comments are controversial because any comments advocating for civil unions is in direct opposition to previous papal teachings on the issue. In 2003 the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the official word for Catholic teachings on any issue – taught that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.” However, in recent years, many Catholic bishops have begun to view civil unions as an alternative to legalized civil marriage, and have noted that civil unions are not the same as a marriage within the church.

Is this the first time Pope Francis has advocated civil unions?

Not really. In 2010, while still serving as Archbishop of Buenos Aries, Francis had previously opposed any efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. However, some have suggested that even at that time Francis supported the idea of civil unions as a way to protect LGBT families without accepting full-scale legalization. While others have dismissed those claims, Pope Francis’ statements in the documentary that he had previously “stood up” for civil unions seems to confirm those assumptions.

Did the pope advocate for gay marriage?

Not really. The Catholic Church has been quick to affirm that marriage remains, in their view, “a lifelong partnership between one man and one woman,” and that the interview comments are not a reversal of previous church teaching. “The pope’s remarks were not presented in their fullness, and no transcript has been presented, so unless the Vatican offers additional clarity, they need to be taken in light of the limited information available about them,” says the official Catholic News Agency.

Why do the pope’s comments matter?

While there are 29 countries in the world that have legally-recognized same-sex marriage, there are many areas of the world where the debate on gay marriage is still heated or just getting started – particularly in Latin America. The pope’s comments advocating for civil unions could smooth the way for the legalization of at least some form of gay marriage in countries where the redefinition of marriage is hotly opposed.

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