News sources today are filled with cheery stories about how Pope Francis has called for legal civil unions for same-sex couples, characterizing the step as very progressive for the Roman Catholic Church. But more is going on than meets the eye. While the Pope’s call may represent incremental progress for LGBTQ equality, most reporting overlooks the negative impact it could have around the world.
Pope Francis’s position is less than it seems
The news took me by surprise early this morning when the New York Times pushed out a rather breathless notification of an article announcing Francis’s support for same-sex civil unions.
NBC News concurred with the Time’s celebratory tone, headlining the issue as a “major departure.” The Washington Post practically gushes, saying Francis’s remarks “break from the Catholic Church’s official teaching and mark his clearest support to date for the issue.”
Only Reason came close to raising a critical issue, but while they brushed up against it, they missed addressing it squarely. They call the Pope’s position an “indicator of big cultural shifts” and “a big deal,” noting approvingly that Francis has supported civil unions from at least the early 2000s when he was a cardinal in Argentina.
What you’re not reading in mainstream news sources —
Francis’s long-time support of same-sex civil unions is not necessarily positive. His fellow citizens in Argentina a little more than a decade ago experienced his support for civil unions as far less than progressive.
What none of today’s major news sources explain except in passing is that the Pope’s past support for civil unions was part of his fierce opposition to same-sex marriage.
Several priests in Argentina spoke out against Bergoglio’s harsh words, publicly supporting same-sex marriage. The Pope-to-be defrocked one of them while offering up civil union as a “compromise.”
As Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the Pope-to-be exercised a great deal of political power and public influence. When pressure began to build for same-sex marriage in 2007, Bergoglio led a mean-spirited campaign to stop it. El Pais called his tactics “strident,” and a political opponent characterized his rhetoric as “medieval, reactionary.” Observers suggest Bergoglio’s language was so harsh it actually helped convince the Argentine populace to support same-sex marriage.
Here’s a sample of his rhetoric, which sounds like fear mongering —
In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family…At stake 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.
Let’s not be naive: This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan. This is not a mere legislative proposal (that’s just its form), but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God… Let’s look to St. Joseph, Mary, and the Child to ask fervently that they defend the Argentine family in this moment… May they support, defend, and accompany us in this war of God.
Note that when he wrote of the “father of lies,” Bergoglio was referring to Satan, rather a stock character when religious people demonize LGBTQ people. Pun intended.
Several priests in Argentina spoke out against Bergoglio’s harsh words, publicly supporting same-sex marriage. The Pope-to-be defrocked one of them while privately offering up second-class civil union with no adoption rights as a “compromise.”
His compromise ploy worked no better than his strong-arm tactics
On July 22, 2010, the president of Argentina signed a bill approved by both chambers of the national legislature. Marriage became legal for all same-sex couples, with all the traditional rights and responsibilities, including the right to adopt. On July 30, 2010, same-sex couples began to marry in Argentina.
Marriage remains legal there irrespective of gender, despite the fierce opposition of the man who later became Pope.
A documentary release explains today’s news
“Homosexuals have a right to be part of the family,” Pope Francis says in “Francesco,” a new documentary about his life. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.” In the documentary, made by supporters at the Vatican, he goes on to say, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way, they are legally covered. I stood up for that [in Argentina.]”
Wow, talk about spin.
In Argentina, Francis raved about the Satanic evils of LGBTQ people adopting children. He offered up civil unions to stop LGBTQ people from adopting children. To pretend he stood up for LGBTQ families is disingenuous propaganda. He still doesn’t. More on that in a moment.
In any case, the documentary, which premiered earlier today in Rome, explains all the headlines. The Vatican has sent press releases, and all the major news sources are running with what they got. Most articles contain the same saccharine quotes, the same anodyne cautions, and the same lack of digging into actual Vatican LGBTQ positions.
The possibility of real change exists
To be fair, most news sources are clear they are reporting on nebulous ideas like cultural change, while admitting Francis has not changed any doctrines or policies. Reading between the lines, reporters seem to suggest Francis is setting the stage for incremental change in a organization that measures progress in glacial terms.
I haven’t seen see the documentary yet, but if it’s as positive in tone as reported, it might be a step forward. For example, in one scene, Francis reportedly encourages an Italian gay couple to raise their son in their local parish church, which they describe as “beneficial” to the boy despite doctrinal problems.
This raises a lot of questions about the boy’s mental health, given he would be taught that his parents were intrinsically disordered and immoral. But if it makes room for genuine inclusion in a community he might otherwise have been barred from, the benefit could be real.
But let’s not pretend Francis supports LGBTQ families
The Pope has made clear he staunchly opposes the right of same-sex parents to adopt children. Nothing in this documentary suggests he’s changed his mind. When he calls for civil unions, he means a form of second-class marriage without the legal right to adopt and form families.
In 2018 in unscripted remarks at a Vatican audience, Francis made clear he believes families headed by gay couples are not real families, again objecting to children being raised by same-sex parents.
In 2014, Francis repeated some of his harshest Argentine-era condemnation of same-sex marriage, calling it an “anthropological regression,” opposing a civil union law in Malta because it included adoption rights.
Indeed, Italy offers civil unions, but same-sex couples are still barred from adopting or having adoptions abroad legally recognized. LGBTQ advocates in Italy say the Church has fought adoption fiercely and continues to do so.
So let’s not pretend when Francis says gay couples “have a right to a family,” that he’s talking about a family with children. All indications are that he does not mean that.
The documentary may indicate a certain amount of progress, but if so, the progress is exceptionally small. What the Pope is offering is far less than most LGBTQ people in industrialized nations already have.
Why does this possibly matter to anyone?
I hear some of you saying, “Give it a rest already. Let Catholics fight among themselves about marriage. It doesn’t make any difference to me or most people. We live in liberal democracies where churches don’t have a say in marriage.”
Somebody used almost those exact words to me earlier today.
They’re right for where they live. In the United States, Canada, most of western Europe except Italy, and much of the industrialized world, marriage has little to do with religion outside of optional symbolism like church weddings.
People know marriage belongs to the State, not to the Church
Educated people mostly know marriage existed as a formal civil contract in parts of Europe for at least a full millenium before Christianity began to exist. They know marriage is traditionally practiced in parts of the globe where Christianity has never been much present.
Pope Francis must know too. He’s never gone on the record, after all, claiming atheists should not marry, or that Hindus or Muslims should be excluded from the institution because they aren’t Catholic.
Intentional or not, this documentary is a power grab
For many of us, Francis’s ideas about marriage are irrelevant. We see him as a quaint, powerless anachronism, read what he thinks with perhaps mild curiosity, then move on.
But here’s why it matters.
When Francis calls for extending “civil unions” to same-sex couples, even as a legal compromise, he’s making an implicit claim that the Catholic Church has a stake in the question. He obviously believed so back in Argentina when it was so important to him that he kicked a man out of the priesthood over it.
While he may intend to be kind, he’s actually asserting the power to deny a basic human right to marginalized people.
Offering civil unions oppresses marginalized people where the Church is powerful
Argentina isn’t the only place in Latin America where same-sex marriage has been hugely controversial. It isn’t the only place where the Church has wielded political power and spent large sums of money to try deny to same-sex couples the right to form real families.
El Pais says the Catholic Church takes credit for “beating back” equal marriage in Mexico. In his book, The Expansion of LGBT Rights in Latin America and the Backlash, Javier Corrales says the Catholic Church’s strong fight against same-sex marriage is “giving homophobia a new momentum and posing new roadblocks to LGBT rights.”
The situation in much of Africa is as bad. Where the Church is powerful, it works hard and spends hard to deny marriage rights to LGBTQ people.
We need to keep Francis’s civil-union history in mind
We know as a powerful cardinal in Argentina, he used civil unions to try to stop real same-sex marriage. We know the civil unions he supported did not include the right to form real families. We know he recently opposed civil unions in Malta because they included the right to adopt children.
Perhaps this documentary is a sign of slight progress, but today’s positive headlines are overblown.
At best, the Pope is offering soundbites that play well for Catholics who want to believe he is progressive, while offering no substance for LGBTQ people who demand genuine civil equality.
At worst, the Pope is offering up a poor substitute for marriage as a weapon to stop the real thing in parts of the world where he still wields power over marginalized people.
Whatever the case may be, LGBTQ people deserve better journalism than we’re getting. Media sources do us no favors when they exaggerate progress. Let’s dig in and find out what’s really going on before we re-publish lightly edited press releases.
James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.