Same-sex marriage: A Papal shock to the Church

Same-sex marriage: A Papal shock to the Church

Pope Francis' comment approving same-sex unions may have set the ball rolling on a radical transformation

Pope Francis. Credit: AFP Photo

Pope Francis’ latest call for same-sex civil unions and a right for them to be part of the family is a big step forward towards the Catholic Church’s support for the LGBT people. 

As the first Pope to make public his views on the thorny issue, it sets him apart from his predecessors as well as the Catholic establishment. But is this another off-the-cuff remark or will it translate into changing the Church’s stance?

The Catholic Church considers same-gender sex as sinful and has, historically, resisted its acceptance. Although it teaches that homosexuals should be treated with dignity, it has still been opposed to gay marriage.

The latest comments from the head of the Catholic Church came in the documentary ‘Francesco’, in which the Pope says: “Homosexual people have a 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 create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.” The film also shows him encouraging two gay men to attend church with their three children.

The documentary by Evgeny Afineevsky, an Oscar-nominated director, made its premiere at the Rome Film Festival on October 21. The Pope allowed Afineevsky, who is gay, to travel the world with him and gave the director exclusive interviews.

This is not the first time the Pope has come out in support of LGBT. In 2013, when he began his papacy, he made headlines when he said, “Who am I to judge?” in response to a question on gay priests. He also said of gay people, “We must be brothers.”

The Pope’s comments, on camera, are likely to evoke mixed reactions from the over one billion Catholics worldwide and others – criticism from conservatives and praise from liberals, particularly the LGBT themselves.

Terming the Pope progressive and brave, Nowal Norah Augustus, a Bengaluru-based Catholic teacher said the Church has been staunchly against same-sex marriages. “With the Pope’s nudge in this direction, the Church might relent, but it won’t be easy or unanimous.”

Indeed, the big question is, will the Pope, who is head of the Catholic Church and calling for the creation of civil union laws, go a step further to enable official Church recognition to gay/lesbian unions?

Any such change in the Catholic Church’s stance calls for formal deliberations internally and at least for now, there are no signs of that.

In 2003, the Vatican’s doctrinal body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said: “The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”

A Bengaluru-based Catholic priest said the Pope’s views are positive and go a long way in how we treat LGBT. “Whether it gets formal sanction is left to the Vatican to decide,” he said.

But some believe that although the comments were a personal reflection, it had a strong message.

The Pope’s comments in the film were some of the clearest language the pontiff has used on the subject since his election in 2013, Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh told Reuters.

“Pope Francis’ clear and public support for same-sex civil unions marks a new stage in the Church’s relationship with LGBTQ people,” said Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of ‘Building a Bridge,’ a book about Catholic ministry to homosexuals.

“It shows his overall pastoral approach to LGBTQ people, including those who are Catholic, and sends a clear message to those Bishops and Church leaders who have opposed such laws,” he told Reuters.

But conservatives remain critical. “The Pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the Church about same-sex unions. The Church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships,” Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, said on the Diocese of Providence website.

“One does not have to be a theologian or a moral expert to know that such statements are totally heterodox and constitute a very serious cause of scandal for the faithful,” Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, an ultraconservative Italian critic of the Pope said on the US-based ‘Church Militant’, a traditional Catholic news website.

Having come out openly in support of the LGBT people, the pontiff may have stirred the pot once again. As a “man of the people”, he has spoken in the past on many issues, including poverty, the environment, racial and income inequality, migration, etc.

So, do the Pope’s comments show a likely direction that the Catholic Church might take in the future? Is this a start for a dialogue in the Vatican? Only time will tell, but if it does begin, it could lead to a radical transformation of the Church’s stand on homosexuality.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru)