Pope Francis overlooking the square

Pope Francis backing same-sex unions isn’t a surprise. But it’s still a big deal

This is my preferred version of the article which came out in the Guardian under my name on 22.x.20. As is customary with newspapers, the title, with which I am happy, is not provided by the author but was supplied by the relevant editor.

Also in Russian (по-русски)

I had no advance knowledge either of Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary Francesco nor of Pope Francis’ new formulation of his earlier position on same-sex civil unions. However, it didn’t come as a shock to me. Anyone with any pastoral sense knows that in dealing with someone’s personhood you start from where they are. Given a very gay and very closeted episcopate in most countries, for whom serene and adult conversation about these things has, until recently, been almost impossible, the question has largely been: how long would it take for the basic good sense of the majority of Catholic people and what they have learned to be true about human sexuality to percolate upwards in such a way that senior clergy needn’t be frightened of it? And it is here that Pope Francis has been so good. He clearly isn’t frightened of the issue. This was apparent to me when he called me by phone to affirm me in my priesthood, nullifying an attempt that had been made to boot this openly gay man out.

When the story broke yesterday and friends started to bombard me with news links, I experienced both a surprise, and a surprise at the surprise. As I see it, what he said is both something not especially new, and yet genuinely “a big deal”. Not especially new in that it was well known that, prior to becoming Pope, the then Archbishop Bergoglio had proposed same-sex civil unions during the debate about same-sex marriage in Argentina in 2010. That was at the time a very brave position: the Vatican had specifically and publicly forbidden Catholics from supporting any form of recognition of same-sex relationships, even as a “lesser evil” to supporting same-sex marriage. Since becoming Pope, Francis has referred to his Buenos Aires position in interviews on a number of occasions, though not, as far as I’m aware, on camera.

So why are these latest comments “a big deal”? In part because the Holy Father is clearly representing such civil unions as a good and desirable thing, to be actively promoted, rather than a lesser evil. And second because he affirms the rightness of same-sex couples forming a family and being part of the family of the Church. This will evidently create waves in countries where homosexuality is illegal, as well as cause heartache to rigorist Americans who have sought legal exemption from employing same-sex couples who have entered into legal unions. While only apparently a tiny shift with regards the “lesser evil” view, Francis’ position is inconceivable for someone who believes same-sex acts of the sort usually involved in the lives of such couples 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 stabilize them.

From which we can deduce that Pope Francis does not believe those things. And here I want to express my surprise at the surprise. I think the English-speaking world, with its Enlightened and Protestant assumptions about how religious teaching works, doesn’t really grasp onto how the discussion of LGBT people in the Catholic Church has been panning out. There are no major points of doctrine at stake, nothing in the Creeds, putting at risk the shape of our salvation. And there are no real scruples about the apparently hostile Biblical texts since fundamentalist readings are in any case officially disapproved by Church authority. The presenting issue is one of anthropology, and is fairly simple: either it is true that being gay or lesbian is a vicious or pathological form of a humanity which is only authentically heterosexual; or it is true that being gay or lesbian is simply something that is: a non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. If the former, then “giving in” to being gay or lesbian is to follow the path of your objective disorder, and ultimately to exclude yourself from grace. If the latter, then becoming who you are starts from who you find yourself to be, including your sexual orientation, and the appropriate humanization of your sexual desire will be worked out in appropriate relationships over time.

Well, the speed with which, over the last thirty years or so, Catholic majority populations have generally worked out for themselves that it is the latter which is true, and that therefore that the old mediaeval definitions are simply false, is very gratifying. Let the Irish referendum on the matter stand as an example. This is not to discount the many occasions on which local hierarchies work hard to produce artificial backlashes for their own political benefit, as witness the latest cruel absurdities of the Polish Bishops. Some commentators have been quick to point to the distinction between same-sex civil unions and marriage, saying that the one is possible for Catholics, while the other never will be. I think that’s a bit of a canard. Anyone who has ever read a history of marriage over the last three thousand years, or who has any sense of quite how slow and culturally varied has been the path by which marriage between people of opposite sex came to be a sacrament in the Catholic Church, will have little certainty on that score. As a priest who has been privileged to be a witness at several same-sex ceremonies, where on each occasion the couple gave their own title to what they were doing, I would say this: let the cake rise before you put on the icing. The cake in question is our shared culture and knowledge concerning publicly lived and legal same-sex couplings. The important thing has been the achievement of legal guarantees for stable living. Soon the first generation in history of gay and lesbian kids will reach marriageable age for whom civil marriage was never an impossibility. As their forms of socialization and family witness become clearer we will learn what sort of sacramentality inheres in their unions, and thus what forms of blessing are warranted. No rush to legislate where we have such little jurisprudence. That we have the cake, and the Pope’s affirmation that we should have it, is wonderful. The discussion about the shape and colour of the icing will no doubt be all that and more.