Pope Francis has explicitly voiced his support for same-sex couples and their right to be legally protected under civil union laws, marking a radical shift from the Roman Catholic Church’s otherwise unwavering stance on homosexual relationships over centuries.
The remarks were made in a new documentary called ‘Francesco’ that premiered at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday, and have since garnered both widespread praise and calls for immediate clarification from his more conservative critics.
The 83-year-old Pope’s comments are particularly significant since Catholic teaching maintains that a marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and the church has repeatedly opposed recognition of same-sex unions.
In fact, a document published by the Vatican in 2003 laid down why it was “necessary to oppose legal recognition of homosexual unions”. The document claimed that same-sex couples “obscure certain basic moral values and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage”.
What did Pope Francis say in the documentary?
The film ‘Francesco’, directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky, is based on Francis’ papacy over the last seven and a half years and documents his response to different issues that plague humankind — such as racism, sexual abuse, income inequality, climate change and even the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
When asked about his take on homosexuality at one point in the documentary, the Pope said, “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,” he added. His comments appear to be in reference to his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires, where Francis first endorsed civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriages.
However, this is the first time he has publicly endorsed civil unions as Pope. He is also the first pontiff in history to do so.
In the past, too, the Jesuit Pope has made headlines for his relatively progressive take on homosexuality. In 2013, soon after he was elected, he famously remarked, “Who am I to judge?” when asked a question about gay priests.
In a papal exhortation three years later, the Pope said, “Every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence.”
Recently, the Pope urged people not to discriminate based on sexuality, adding that too much emphasis was being put on the “adjective” (gay), rather than the “noun” (person).
“There are people that prefer to select or discard people because of the adjective. These people don’t have a human heart,” he said in a BBC documentary. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
What does the Pope’s support for gay civil unions mean for the LGBTQI community?
While the Pope’s comment is not likely to result in a change in Catholic doctrine, several members and advocates of the LGBTQI community have welcomed it as representing a shift in the church’s attitude towards sexual minorities and their relationships.
But Francis has not yet indicated his openness to same-sex marriage. In fact, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he pushed for same-sex civil unions as an alternative when the Argentinian government was deciding whether to legalise same-sex marriage.
Civil unions or civil partnerships are legally recognised arrangements much like marriages. They were created primarily to provide legal recognition to same-sex couples.
Pope Francis has faced criticism for his vehement opposition to same-sex marriages in the past.
Even so, experts say that acceptance of civil unions from one of the most revered public figures in the world could help change perspectives in countries where the LGBTQ community has been denied its rights so far.
“It is an historic moment when the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, long seen as a persecutor of LGBTQ people, moves in such a supportive direction for lesbian/gay couples and their families. It signals that the church is continuing to develop more positively its approach to LGBTQ issues,” Francis Debernardo, Executive Director of US Catholic LGBT+ advocacy group New Ways Ministry, told Reuters.
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What has the Vatican said about homosexuality and same-sex marriage?
According to the Roman Catholic Church, homosexual people should be treated with respect and dignity, but homosexual acts have been labelled as “intrinsically disordered”.
In 1976, Pope Paul VI published a document on ‘sexual ethics’ which outlawed premarital and extra-marital sex and strongly condemned homosexuality. Ironically, Paul VI himself was accused of engaging in homosexual relations, and is the first pope on record to publicly deny allegations of homosexuality.
A letter published by the Vatican’s doctrine office in 1986 described homosexuality as “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”
The letter was undersigned by the then-prefect of the office, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was the theological adviser to Pope John Paul II and later went on to become Pope Benedict XVI.
Another document shared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2003, titled ‘Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons’, read, “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.”
Recognising such unions, the Vatican claimed, would not only encourage “deviant behaviour”, but also would suggest an equivalence to marriage, which according to the church is a union between man and woman.
During his annual Christmas message in 2012, Pope Benedict said that gay marriage destroyed the “essence of the human creature”. He claimed that gay marriage was a “manipulation of nature”.
It was only in 2018 that the Vatican recognised the term ‘LGBT’ by using it in an official document for the first time. The paper, which looked into the Catholic Church’s relationship with young people, said that “some LGBT youth” were looking to “benefit from greater closeness and experience greater care by the church.”
This was significant for gay catholics, who until now were referred to by the Catholic Church as people with “homosexual inclinations” and “homosexuals.”
What does the Bible say about homosexual relations?
Most references to homosexuality in the bible only refer to sexual relations between two men. But over the years, conservative Christians have said that the principles apply to the entire LGBTQI community.
In the Bible, homosexual relations are forbidden in the book of Leviticus. Leviticus 20:13 reads, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death.”
In some of his letters, which are included in the Bible, St Paul condemns homosexuality, calling it “unrighteous”, and claims that people who practise it will not inherit the kingdom of God.
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