Gay people “have the right to a family”: a “civil union law” must be passed. In a scene of the documentary Francesco by Russian director Evgeny Afineevsky, presented this week at the Rome Film Festival, the pontiff explicitly says yes to the legal recognition of homosexual couples in state laws.
The cinematic scene, which goes back to a real episode, involves a phone call from Pope Francis to Andrea and Dario, a gay couple with three young children, who had written to the pontiff to tell him about their discomfort in bringing the children to the local parish because of the prejudices of other Catholics. “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family,” says the Pope in the documentary. “You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered. I stood up for this.”
Francis’s statement goes against Ratzinger’s doctrine of “non-negotiable principles,” which considered marriage between a man and a woman the only form of union that should be recognized by civil law: according to Ratzinger, the Church and Catholics must fight “attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union,” such as civil unions between homosexual people. It marks a discontinuity with Francis’s predecessors and shows that, in a certain sense, the Church can also take a relativistic attitude.
In recent years, some bishops had already encouraged the legal recognition of civil unions, including homosexual ones. In February 2013—a month before the election of Pope Bergoglio—the then-president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Monsignor Paglia, had called for solutions “of a private law type” and in a “patrimonial perspective” to be found for “other non-family types of cohabitation,” including gay couples. “I believe that this is a terrain that politics must begin to cover in a calm manner,” said Paglia. This position was rebuked the next day in L’Osservatore Romano.
Now comes Bergoglio’s statement of support, which is part of a personal path that is not always linear. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was an opponent of the laws on gay marriage. One of his biographers, Sergio Rubin, maintains that in reality, the future pope was willing to privately approve of civil unions as an intermediate form with respect to real marriage, also in order to block the possibility of gay couples adopting children. Then, at the beginning of his pontificate, there was his “historic” statement “who am I to judge?” spoken about a gay man. Now comes the news of his approval towards civil unions.
In any case, one must distinguish the doctrinal level from the civil one. Francesco is talking about the legal recognition of homosexual couples by states, as happened in Italy with the Cirinnà law of 2016 (and it is not irrelevant that his interlocutor in the documentary is a Russian director, a country where homosexuality is almost a taboo). But this does not mean that Catholic doctrine has changed.
There is no need to go too far back in time for evidence: the Synod of Bishops on the Family in 2015 and the post-synodal exhortation Amoris laetitia by Pope Francis himself stressed 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.” Thus, these latest words seem rather an affirmation of secularism, that is, an announcement that the Church will not fight against the decisions of states, even on sensitive issues.
The reactions from the political world were mixed. Monica Cirinnà said that the words of the Pope were “important words that will warm the hearts of many gay believers.” According to Vittorio Sgarbi, “the Pope is a victim of relativism and fashion.” Alessandro Zan took the occasion to put out a call: “Now let’s push stronger on the law against homo- and transphobia”—which the Italian Episcopal Conference has rejected because it would put “freedom of opinion” at risk.