People and Community

Pope Francis endorses same-sex civil unions

Does the pope’s statement signal a change in Catholic Church doctrine? Members of the University community weigh in.
Pope Francis waves at the end of his Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St.Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis waves at the end of his Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. Photo: Associated Press

In an unprecedented move, Pope Francis said that he believes same-sex couples should be allowed to be joined in a civil union.

The surprising statement came to light last week in a documentary about his life called “Francesco.” It was later reported that the segment had been taped by a Televisa reporter in 2019 but never aired.

The pope’s complete statement was: “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.”

The pope’s words were met by criticism from many conservatives in the Catholic Church who believe in church doctrine that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.

But to many members of the LGBTQ community, it signaled a much-welcomed change.

David Kling, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Miami, said the pope’s words will not change church doctrine.

“The pope was not speaking in any official capacity; his comment was a spontaneous, off-the-cuff statement,” said Kling. “The pope was not speaking about marriage, which, as the church defines it, is a sacrament between a man and a woman. This is a very important distinction.”

The pope has spoken about civil unions before. When asked in a 2014 interview in Italy if the church could support the move to legalize same-sex civil unions, he answered that “marriage is between a man and a woman.”

But the pope has also shown a more humane view of the LGBTQ community than previous pontiffs. His response in 2013 to an Italian journalist who asked about his reaction if a gay person came to confess was “Who am I to judge?”

Francis is seen by many as a progressive leader who, in some respects, is trying to nudge the Catholic Church into the 21st century. He has criticized income inequality and global capitalism and has shown tremendous concern for the environment. In another unprecedented move, on Oct. 25 he appointed Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., as the first African American cardinal.

The pope’s willingness to talk about issues skirted by other religious leaders gives some people hope.

Randy Fitzgerald, a senior who is gay and a practicing Catholic, heard the pope’s message and felt it was a “great first step in the right direction.”

“Although this does not change doctrine, this is the leader of the Catholic Church recognizing that two people of the same gender can love each other and be in a monogamous relationship—that they should have some level of dignity and that legally, they are entitled to equal rights,” he said.

Fitzgerald was also heartened that the statement alluded to gay people establishing a family.

“I think it is a really big step for the church, and it is important that we recognize that we can have these family values,” he said. "I was raised by a single mom, and I consider us to be a family; if two people love each other, and they want to start a family, I think that is a good thing. Families, all kinds of families, are good for our society.”

Even though 29 countries worldwide have legalized same-sex marriage—including Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica—church leaders still hold to traditional views on same-sex unions. 

Kling said that the pope’s message has “riled the more conservative wing of the church, exacerbating already existing tensions between the pope and allies and his enemies.”

But Fitzgerald chooses to believe that change will come. 

“We see that people sometimes choose to lean on religion to discriminate against folks like me,” he said. “That's just wrong. Jesus said nothing about gay people. He said nothing about homosexuality.

“A lot of people ask me how I can be gay and Catholic,” Fitzgerald continued. I am proud to be Catholic.”