I must’ve had four or five people text me or message me on Facebook all at the same time about Pope Francis’ pronounced position on same-sex civil unions last week. “Go Francis!” was the general idea. This pope has always seemed different to me, ever since I got all caught up in the conclave news coverage seven years ago. I watched with excitement as the cardinals at the Vatican elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit, as the next pope after Pope Benedict XVI resigned. I was so happy that he chose the pontifical name Francis, for the much-loved St. Francis of Assisi. And then on the balcony when he could’ve just given us all the royal wave, he instead bowed his head and asked for everyone else’s blessing.
“Now, I would like to give you a blessing, but first I want to ask you for a favor,” he said. “Before the bishop blesses the people, I ask that you pray to the Lord so that He blesses me.” That action set him apart for me. He asked everyone else to pray for him, like maybe all of our prayers were just as powerful as his own. Francis immediately seemed like a humble pope, and one who was very approachable. His election felt like a breath of fresh air in a sometimes stagnant room.
When I worked for the church around 10 years ago, we had daylong staff retreats that I usually looked forward to, but those rooms also grew stuffy at times. One retreat really stands out for me, and not because the dessert was good. At this particular retreat, one speaker was a young Catholic author who right away talked about marriage with the undercurrent that women should let their husbands be “in charge.” I wasn’t the only one squirming in my seat. Then he went on to address homosexuality as if it were a very real abomination. I knew there were coworkers there who had gay family members, and I was pretty sure some of the clergy who were there were also possibly gay. The pastor of the church I went to, Father Fred Daley, came out as gay more than 15 years ago. I was horrified at what the speaker was saying during that presentation. But I also knew that on another day at another event, I was just as likely to hear a talk on equality and how we all need to love each other — black, white, gay, straight, able-bodied or not — that we’re all children of God. So while this guy came across as a real idiot to me, I knew there were a lot of Catholics who did not adhere to his interpretation of marriage or of homosexuality. The church I knew and loved was filled with contradictions, and that was mostly OK with me. The people who make up the church are complicated, so why wouldn’t the institution be the same?
According to America magazine, a Jesuit publication, the Pope said in “Francesco,” a new documentary just released, “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it. What we have to have is a civil union law — that way they are legally covered. I supported that.”
At the very least, this is a unique statement by the head of the Roman Catholic Church, one that speaks to tolerance and love rather than judgment and condemnation. Of course now there are those saying that his words weren’t a precise translation or that while Pope Francis endorses civil union protections for same-sex couples, that doesn’t mean he believes same-sex couples should marry. Whatever the take on semantics, it still feels like a step forward even if he didn’t formally change the church’s position on gay marriage. At least he considered the topic.
I read someplace that maybe Francis wants to make sure LGBTQ issues are up for discussion within the church, that the church doesn’t ignore the conversation. Certainly his comments made all the top news outlets last week, and I bet there was plenty of lively conversation in the kitchen of the old chancery offices where I used to work.
Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley released a statement not long after the news of Pope Francis’ statements broke last week. In part, it reads: “The Pope’s endorsement of civil unions is not an endorsement of homosexual activity. Just as the Church does not campaign against civil laws that allow for common-law marriage or second marriages that are not sacramental, even though such arrangements can be in violation of the laws of the Church, the Holy Father recognizes that in civil society there can be cogent reasons to enact such laws providing for civil unions which are not the same as the institution of marriage.”
On the Island, Father Michael Nagle, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish, said in an email that he didn’t know much about the newly released documentary but wrote: “It would seem that Pope Francis is simply saying all people need to be protected under the law. With regard to theology, he has been clear that sacramental marriage is only possible between a man and a woman who are free to marry and have that capacity and intention to enter into this sacramental union.”
Marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic Church, like baptism, confirmation, holy orders, and first communion, (there are seven sacraments, so I may be missing a couple). Sacraments are central to the faith and they’re important, so the sacrament of marriage is not considered the same as civil unions, which are considered legal in nature. In other words, marriage is a big deal within the church and it’s why it can be a touchy topic.
I’m sure many bishops and archbishops in the U.S. have had to address the Pope’s comments on some level. Pope Francis definitely got my vote for most interesting conversation starter last week, and Catholic or not, we all have our own ideas of what his comments might mean. He keeps life interesting, and that’s one reason why I like him. For me, I believe his statement makes the church more welcoming, more open to everyone, and I think that’s a good thing.