The Pope’s strong signal
One story that has emerged from the AIDS years illustrates exactly what Pope Francis meant when he called for allowing “civil unions” between LGBTQ couples, the better to “protect” their rights.
The story involves a gay couple (one of many, we might add) in the United States, one of them dying of AIDS. Since the family of the dying man was against their relationship, they refused to let his partner have a voice in his care and even to visit him and provide comfort and commiseration.
When the patient died, his partner was not allowed to say farewell, and was prevented from attending the wake, funeral, and burial.
The story brought home the devastating toll that homophobic, judgmental, and perhaps even vindictive attitudes can have on the lives (and deaths) of gay couples. We can very well understand the sense of loss, deprivation, and devastation that the surviving partner felt. But what of the dead man? Can we even wrap our minds around the sorrow he must have felt, the isolation and loneliness arising from the absence of the most important person in his life during his last hours?
The couple was kept cruelly apart because of one crucial element: the lack of any document or ritual that would have certified that they were more than just friends and partners, that they were in fact a family, that they were each other’s partner for life. All that heartbreak could have been prevented if only the couple had been married (where allowed) or recognized as a couple through a civil union. Such a contract and procedure would have given each of them the right to be consulted and to decide on the course of treatment in case of illness, the right to be present at the ailing one’s bedside, the right to determine the manner in which termination of life should take place, the way in which the deceased is to be laid to rest, the right to be present at the last rites.
These are rights spouses and family members take for granted. But they are rights LGBTQ couples and families must jump through hoops to enjoy and maintain.
Perhaps now it will help that sexual minorities have the Pope on their side. The documentary “Francesco,” which recently premiered at the Rome Film Festival, shook the world when it showed the leader of the Roman Catholic Church categorically saying about gay people: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”
Amid the resulting hubbub, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines came out firmly behind the Pope’s words with a statement, “Where Pope Francis is Coming From,” which made clear that in making the pitch for “civil unions” between gay individuals, “(the Pope) is not out to destroy our morals and orthodoxy. He just wants to do as Jesus himself did. He valued being kind and compassionate more than being right and righteous.”
Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, acting president of the CBCP, pointed out that the Pope “is aware of the extent of the bullying, rejection, and exclusion that many homosexuals normally go through.”
To be sure, there are other voices raised in protest. Retired Filipino bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon told reporters that “this is a shocking statement coming from the Pope…. I am really scandalized by his defense of homosexual union, which surely leads to immoral acts.”
In public statements, however, the Pope has always maintained his continuing belief that the nature of marriage is that of a union between a man and a woman. But, as he stressed in the “Francesco” documentary, “Homosexual people are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.” Civil unions, then, are a fair, viable middle ground.
Lito Zulueta, a professor who teaches at the Dominican University of Santo Tomas and is a former reporter and editor in this paper who covered the election of two popes in the Vatican (Benedict and Francis), comments that the Pontiff’s 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 represents, says Zulueta, an “increasingly paternal—oops, sexist!—or shall we say, more pastoral, less judgmental, approach to the issue.”
Pope Francis sent the first signals of this shift in attitude when, in 2013, asked about gay people, he uttered that now-famous quote: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
This time, the Pope’s words of support for same-sex civil unions “is a major step forward in the church’s support of LGBTQ people,” said Fr. James Martin, a prominent American Jesuit who has been a target of Catholic conservatives for his ministry to the LGBTQ community. “It is,” noted Martin in a tweet, “in keeping with his pastoral approach to LGBT people, including LGBT Catholics, and sends a strong signal to countries where the church has opposed such laws.”
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