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Paul Vallely: The Pope’s shift in language matters

30 October 2020

His remarks on same-sex civil unions have set a precedent, says Paul Vallely


Pope Francis at the Vatican during his weekly general audience on Wednesday

Pope Francis at the Vatican during his weekly general audience on Wednesday

WHAT exactly has Pope Francis been saying about gay relationships? You could be forgiven for being confused, given the media storm since the release of the new documentary film Francesco, in which civil unions for same-sex couples are endorsed for the first time by any pope (News, 23 October).

Liberals have been delighted, proclaiming the development as “historic”. Conservatives have been outraged, declaring the Pope’s remarks to be merely private opinions “devoid of Magisterial weight” which “do not correspond to the constant teaching of the Church”.

This is what Pope Francis actually said: “Homosexuals [are] children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out of the family or have a miserable life because of their homosexuality. We need a law of civil union. They have a right to be legally covered. I defended this.” He referred to his endorsement of civil unions as a strategy in 2010 to head off plans to introduce gay marriage in Argentina when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

But was this a tacit endorsement of same-sex relationships? Allegations of mistranslation and bad editing surrounded the documentary, particularly when it was revealed that the film had cut his concluding sentence: “That does not mean approving of homosexual acts, not in the least.”

In his 2016 teaching document Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis categorically stated: “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 the family.” This is a far cry from previous Vatican declarations that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” or “deviant behaviour”. But it is pretty unyielding.

Yet the shift in language is significant. The two previous popes had been a philosopher and a theologian, and their language reflected that. But Pope Francis is primarily a pastor, and his tone reflects a more pastoral response. Within months of becoming Pope, asked about a gay priest, he had famously replied: “Who am I to judge?” And so he has continued. Earlier this year, he told a group of parents that God loved their LGBT children — and told one sex-abuse survivor that God, not abuse, had made him gay.

Previously, the Vatican strategy was to oppose same-sex civil unions as the start of a slippery slope that would inevitably lead to gay relationships’ being seen as equivalent to marriage. So, for Pope Francis to come out publicly in favour of civil unions creates a precedent.

The openly gay Catholic priest Fr James Alison — who was once telephoned by Francis and told to “walk with deep interior freedom” — sees another significant shift. In Argentina, Cardinal Bergoglio viewed civil unions as the “lesser of two evils”. But now, Fr Alison suggests, his endorsement of civil unions as Pope would be inconceivable for someone who believed same-sex acts to be mortal sins, leading those involved to go to hell: “If you believed those things, you would seek to break up such couples, not stabilise them. From which we can deduce that Pope Francis does not believe those things.”

Perhaps that’s going too far. But this is a pope whose approach is incremental. He is fond of talking about taking “baby steps”. That, perhaps, explains why conservatives are outraged and liberals are delighted.

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