Out of the closet and into the parish halls
That some bishops are open to gay civil unions is old hat. What’s new is that the Bishop of Rome has said it finally.
Pope Francis said nothing essentially new when he remarked in Russian-American filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Francesco” that there was need for “civil union” laws to “legally protect” homosexual couples. The new documentary might not have shown him repeating the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and its opposition to same-sex marriage, but that may be because the movie is the product of much editing, and his views on the matters have been expressed elsewhere and are quite well-known.
In 2010 as Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, he opposed the passage in Argentina of a same-sex marriage law because it would allegedly devalue the family and enable partners to adopt children, who he said would be deprived of their right to be raised by father and mother. “At stake,” he asserted, “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.”
Former Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, now one of Francis’ top advisers in the papal curia, has always urged partisans in polarizing debates to stop demonizing one another, himself vowing “not to deliver hate speech”; but in 2010, Bergoglio basically said same-sex marriage was the work of the devil. “Let us not be naïve,” he declared. “This is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a move of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
Perhaps if there’s a radical shift in the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, as the secular news media have headlined it, it is in the Pope’s increasingly paternal — oops, sexist! — or shall we say, more pastoral, less judgmental, approach to the issue. This may have been signaled by Pope Francis when in 2013, shortly after he became pope, he said, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”
His subsequent remarks on the subject clarified his position. In his 2015 book with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, “The Name of God is Mercy,” the Pope looked back to his 2013 remark. “I was paraphrasing by heart the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it says that these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized,” he explained.
The Pope added he was “glad we are talking about homosexual people because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity. And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: Let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love.”
“I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together,” said the Pope. “You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it.”
The last remark sounds congruent with the Pope’s actions as reported in the new documentary, in which a gay couple said they were encouraged by the Pope to continue going to the parish church with their adopted kids despite risking disapproval by the other parishioners. The Pope was basically saying what he had earlier written in “Amoris Laetitia” for an “inclusive Church,” one that includes homosexuals and remarried Catholics.
The same papal encyclical declares that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” Hence, the Pope’s openness to civil unions, not marriage, if only for the legal protection of homosexual partners. But while he called for it when he was head of the Church of Buenos Aires, and he might have implicitly suggested it in his encyclical, which now as then remains controversial, he’s explicitly calling for it now that he’s Bishop of Rome.
Now as then, too, some church leaders have expressed openness to homosexual civil unions, such as the more theologically sophisticated of Philippine bishops and the late senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr., once the lawyer of the social justice office of the episcopal conference.
Pope Francis’ remarks do not constitute formal papal teaching, but they pave the way for a more open discussion in the Church of homosexuality and gay partnerships. It is a much-needed discussion that has now moved out of the closet and into the parish halls.
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Lito B. Zulueta is a journalism professor at the University of Santo Tomas and the former Arts and Books editor of the Inquirer.
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