Editor’s Note: Allison Hope is a writer whose work has been featured by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Slate and elsewhere. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
The highest Catholic in all the world has pushed the door towards LGBTQ inclusion open further by pronouncing that same-sex couples, historically excluded from traditional religious and civil institutions like marriage, ought to have legal protections that recognize their unions.
According to the Catholic News Agency, Pope Francis, in an interview for a documentary released in Rome on Wednesday, said that civil unions should be the law of the land for same-sex couples.
“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered,” he said, elaborating that LGBTQ people are children of God.
“I stood up for that,” he added.
In the past, Pope Francis has said he is not against civil unions, but this is the first time since becoming Pope that he has directly stated he favors them. (He advocated for same-sex civil unions when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.)
His recent comments stand in stark contrast with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church Pope Francis leads, which has long taken the posture that same-sex acts are “intrinsically disordered.”
The Pope’s comments, while shared in the context of a documentary and not necessarily as a formal, written decree or a consensus among the Catholic leadership in Rome or elsewhere, will have a huge global ripple effect on communities, jurisdictions, families and individuals. The Pope’s compassion is a welcome sign from a religion that has long alienated LGBTQ people. Whether part of an active ploy to lure back disaffected congregants or a genuine statement of inclusion, his words are a helpful evolution for the many LGBTQ people who have been ostracized simply because of who they are and who they love.
To be clear, the civil union stance is also so 1998. We have since learned, in the courts and on the streets, that civil unions are not the same as full marriage rights, and separate but equal is never equal. That said, the highest seat in one of the world’s most dominant religions has allowed that LGBTQ people deserve to love and be loved, and that our love should be treated with respect and validity.
Pope Francis has been billed the most progressive Pope in history. He has made pronouncements in favor of respecting people who are LGBTQ, stating in 2013, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” He embraced – literally hugged – Diego Neria Lejarraga, a transgender man who had been ostracized by religious leaders in his native Spain in 2015. Pope Francis has also opened up a “mercy window” to lend forgiveness for people who have had abortions and asked that the faithful embrace immigrants and refugees.
In 2003, in contrast, under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by the future Pope Benedict XVI, issued “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons,” in which it wrote, “The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”
Francis’s public softening on LGBTQ protections comes as the Catholic church faces record abandonment by new generations of people coming of age who no longer cling to organized religion as a guidepost or community building resource. Covid-19 has only exacerbated the struggle many churches face as donations drop, religious schools close, and chapels and other religious institutions make headlines as hosts for superspreader events.
Meanwhile, much of organized religion, and the Catholic Church in particular, have long served as the biggest moral finger-pointers and impediments to the evolution of LGBTQ social and political equality. Citing religion as the reason to discriminate has been and is still a favorite strategy of political operatives in America as well, despite the constitutional demand for the separation of church and state.
A case is presently scheduled to be heard before the Supreme Court on November 4, the day after Election Day, which asks the question of whether a Philadelphia-based Catholic adoption agency – which takes government dollars – can turn LGBTQ (and Jewish and anyone who doesn’t fit their mold) foster parents away because of their strongly-held religious beliefs. Two standing Supreme Court Justices recently let out that they believe the 2015 ruling on marriage equality didn’t go the right way, leaving the strong possibility that laws pertaining to LGBTQ families are at risk.
In this context, the Pope’s remarks – unofficial and dated as they may be – are a signal that a leader of immense power is still looking on LGTBQ people with compassion and love, with the belief that our lives and families deserve to exist under the law. As our long-fought rights hang in the balance with threats of our family’s protections being yanked from under us – with religion so often the attempted justification – the Pope’s comments are more than just refreshing; if heeded by Catholics across the world, they may indeed be life-saving.