Although Francis is often described as a revolutionary Pope, he is in fact an incrementalist, who works in small ways, with gestures and enigmatic pronouncements.Photograph by Maria Laura Antonelli / AGF / Shutterstock
An offhand remark that Pope Francis made about gay people in July, 2013, is still the single most memorable statement of his pontificate. He made it during a press conference on a flight from Rio to Rome, after a reporter alluded to a supposed “gay lobby” at the Vatican. Francis said, “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has a good will, then who am I to judge him?” That reply, just four months after his election, signalled that, as he settled into the office, he wasn’t going to abandon the joyous spontaneity of the first weeks of his tenure. It revealed his personal humility before questions of human sexuality, and suggested an openness to the lives of gay people that runs strongly counter to Catholic history, Church teaching, and Vatican policy.
Francis’s recently released remarks about same-sex civil unions are quite a bit more ambiguous. They appear in a documentary, “Francesco,” made with the approval of the Vatican, which had its première on Wednesday, at the Rome Film Festival. Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky, who has made films about the crises in Ukraine and Syria, the documentary follows people whose lives have been affected by the Pope. One sequence involves Andrea Rubera, a gay man who lives in Rome with his partner and their three adopted children. After taking part in a Mass at the papal residence, Rubera gave Francis a letter explaining that he and his partner hoped to raise the children as Catholics. Francis phoned him, offered encouragement, and told him, as Rubera recalls in the film, to be aware that, in the parish, “not all people will share your choice of having a family like that.” Rubera adds, “He didn’t mention which was his opinion about my family. Probably he is following the doctrine on this point. But the attitude toward people has massively changed.” In the film, Francis is then heard saying, “Homosexual people have a right to be in the family. They are children of God. They have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out of the family or made miserable over this. What we have to make is a law of civil coexistence, for they have the right to be legally covered. I stood up for that.”
Those comments stirred approval from progressives and consternation from traditionalists. James Martin, a Jesuit priest with an active ministry to L.G.B.T.Q. people, whom Francis met at the Vatican last year, described them on Twitter as “historic.” He wrote, “What makes Pope Francis comments supporting same-sex civil unions today so momentous? First, he is saying them as Pope, not Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Second, he is clearly supporting, not simply tolerating, civil unions. Third, he is saying it on camera, not privately.” Bishop Thomas Tobin, of Providence, Rhode Island (who, in August, insinuated on Twitter that the Democratic Presidential nominee, Joe Biden, isn’t a true Catholic), sought clarification from Rome. “The Pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the Church about same-sex unions,” Tobin said in a statement. “The Church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships.”
Francis’s remarks in the film are unclear. Does he mean that gay people should be welcomed in the families they are raised in, or that they should be encouraged in their wish to have families of their own? Does he fear that they’ll be “thrown out” of the Church, or that they’d be treated as outcasts in civil society? He “stood up for” civil unions when he was an archbishop, and now, as Pope, he says that “we have to make” them, but does this mean that he will put the authority of the papal office behind efforts for civil unions worldwide—in Latin America, for instance, where only eight out of thirty-three countries recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions?
It turns out that there’s a reason for the lack of clarity: the remarks were reportedly edited, in different ways, by both the film’s director and the Vatican. They are drawn from an interview with the Pope conducted in the spring of 2019, by Valentina Alazraki, a longtime Vatican correspondent for the Mexican broadcaster Televisa. At the time, the Vatican (exercising its usual prerogative) struck the comments about civil unions before clearing the footage for release to Televisa. Afineevsky incorporated that struck-out footage into his documentary. A significant sentence was left out, however, so that Francis is heard approving of civil unions, but is not heard adding, “That does not mean approving of homosexual acts, not in the least.”
Even as he supported civil unions, then, Francis, like his predecessors, made a distinction between gay people (good) and the way that they express passion and love (not good). His support is an incremental change, at most. And yet those remarks, because they make his support for gay civil unions common knowledge, may have greater practical import in the long term than his bold statements about climate change, migrants and refugees, or the global economy—at the same time that they put a fresh focus on the tensions in the Church’s attitude toward the lives of L.G.B.T.Q. people.
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Francis has been described in turn as a revolutionary Pope, a Latin American socialist, and a Trump-style disrupter. In fact, he is an incrementalist, who works in small ways, with gestures and enigmatic pronouncements. In 2018, Francis sent a ninetieth-birthday greeting to the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, symbolically bringing the whole movement known as “liberation theology” in from the cold, after decades of Vatican scrutiny. The next year, he travelled to the United Arab Emirates, becoming the first Pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula; he celebrated Mass for at least a hundred and thirty-five thousand people, most of them Catholic migrant workers from the Philippines, India, and South America who lack a path to citizenship or protection from the Muslim country’s strict anti-blasphemy laws, but he did not address either issue publicly during his two-day visit.
On matters of human sexuality, though, it can be argued that Francis’s incrementalism is vexing to the point of being incoherent. Church teaching holds that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that gay sex is sinful for a number of reasons—for example, because it is sex outside what the Church regards as a properly constituted marriage, and because, not being ordered toward procreation, it is “contrary to the creative wisdom of God.” It is “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” in the words of a document issued by the Vatican in October, 1986—at a grave moment in the aids epidemic for gay men in the United States—which counselled people with the homosexual “condition” to live chastely and to join the “sufferings and difficulties” it brought on to those of Christ on the Cross.
More than thirty years later, neither progressive Catholics nor traditionalists actually envision a world in which large numbers of gay people will live in committed same-sex relationships but will shun sexual activity as an “intrinsic moral evil.” Francis, then, has complicated the Church’s position rather than clarified it, and he did it in an interview, rather than with an encyclical or a Vatican conference.
There are good reasons for him to act incrementally, and offhandedly, rather than directly. For one thing, his efforts to advance bold objectives through the formal structures of the papacy—on climate change, immigration, or income inequality—have met with something less than acclamation from the Catholic populace. For another, the Church’s understanding of L.G.B.T.Q. people can’t simply be changed by papal decree. The questions of human sexuality are no less complex than those of the economy or the environment. And it seems, on some level, that Francis’s strenuous efforts to address intractable global problems serve to draw attention away from the problem near at hand—namely, that, when it comes to sexuality, the Church’s account of the human person is as superannuated as trickle-down economics and coal-burning power plants.
It’s possible, of course, that Francis is wholeheartedly behind Church teaching, convinced that gay people should live chastely—including those in the civil unions he supports in the documentary. If that’s the case, he could simply say so, and put the question of his commitments to rest. But it may be that, in supporting those unions, he is acknowledging that the Church needs to revise its understanding of gay people. Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., who was named the first African-American cardinal by the Pope on Sunday, wrote in 2014, while archbishop of Atlanta, that “the distinction that our Church makes between orientation and behavior” is one “which admittedly needs reexamination and development.” A full recognition of gay people will have profound consequences for the Church’s teachings about marriage, the family, personhood, bioethics, celibacy, sex among the clergy—about human sexuality on the whole. At some point, the Church is going to have to address it all directly, through an encyclical letter, or a synod, or even an ecumenical council on the human person—a Vatican III, which would bring the Church into the twenty-first century as Vatican II brought it, belatedly, into the twentieth.
The words that Francis said back in 2013—“Who am I to judge?”—are ones by which he, himself, will be judged. He will turn eighty-four in December. A council on the human person is likely a project for a successor. Meanwhile, his incrementalist approach makes sense only if he keeps Catholicism moving in the right direction, toward recognizing gay people in the ways that they recognize themselves. It may be stretching credulity to see his remarks in support of same-sex civil unions as a means to the eventual end of the full embrace of gay people. And yet they are a step of some kind, and it may be that Francis knows where he, and the Church, must go.
The conflict between progressives and traditionalists has hardened around Popes Francis and Benedict and tipped toward an open dispute with the publication of a book that presents one Pope indirectly rebuking the other.