In a recent documentary about Pope Francis titled Francesco, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church seemingly expressed support for same-sex civil unions. To quote Pope Francis directly, he stated that “homosexuals have a right to be part of the family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it.”
The support Pope Francis has given opposes what his predecessors have publicly stated. For instance, the Church issued a document in 2003 that declared that while they teach respect, “that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or legal recognition of homosexual unions.” There is a distinct difference in Church doctrine, however, between gay people and those who commit homosexual acts- religious scripture dictates that homosexuals should remain chaste and not act on their desires. Still, longing for the same-sex is not in and out of itself a sin.
While the topic of homosexuality is a sensitive one and has been highly debated, biblical scriptures have placed minimal emphasis on it. Only 0.02% of verses in the Catholic Bible can be interpreted as prohibiting homosexual acts. This may not have been caused by early Christianity’s flexibility or laxness regarding the matter, but rather because Christians before the 19th century rarely understood the concept of defined sexual orientation.
Recent revelations have dampened the resounding effects of the Pope’s controversial statement, however. Several dubious details have been unearthed, including the fact that the director, Evgeny Afineevsky, has never been granted an on-camera interview with the Pope. Instead, he excerpted the provocative declaration from an interview with Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki in 2019, which he found when the Vatican granted him access to their archives. The quote in question was originally cut out of Alazraki’s aired interview by the Vatican. The New York Times further reported that Alazraki did not recall the comments being made to her, while Afineevsky has simultaneously avoided questions on the origin of the quote.
This has not been the first time that Pope Francis’ comments have had two contradictory interpretations and were shrouded in a cloud of mystery. As a cardinal in Buenos Aires, he reportedly urged his fellow bishops to signal the Church’s support for same-sex civil unions. Some say this was a result of his personal ideology. Other sources claim his reasoning behind it was that it would be a compromise for the controversial bill that was on the verge of being passed to legalize gay marriage in Argentina at the time- he chose to support the ‘lesser of two evils’, so to say. Regardless, the law allowing same-sex marriage was eventually passed in his native country in 2010.
Even so, is it too far-fetched to believe that Pope Francis may have intended such statements to be what they are seen to be- a call for change? The Pope has indicated support for the community several times in the past that was in line with what he said in Francesco. He blessed a gay couple in a letter with his apostle’s blessing, a special benediction, in 2015. A similar gesture signalling his endorsement was made when he was asked about the possibility of a gay priest, famously replying “who am I to judge?”. Pope Francis has a reputation for paving the way for more modern ideology within the Catholicism realm, with outright support for divorced Catholics, a topic that his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, has historically stuck to doctrine.
Nonetheless, his modern perspective has caused quite a frenzy with Catholics. As expected, there are allies of the Pope that agreed with his tacit support. Reverend James Martin, for one, considers it a significant step forward in the Church’s relationship with the LBGTQ+ community. Quite surprisingly, within the community itself, reception to his remarks was mixed. Jamie Manson, a lesbian Catholic and the president for Catholics for Choice penned her sadness over his failure to put his support into tangible actions in an article for the Washington Post. Pope Francis’ open critics within the Church have not been shy to express their shock either. Bishop Tobin of Rhode Island makes his perspective no secret, saying that “The Pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the Church… The Church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships.” Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano echoed this sentiment, saying that “such statements are totally heterodox and constitute a very serious cause of scandal for the faithful.”
The opposing reception is also predicted to be due to differences in the international political climate. According to Francis Clooney, a professor of Divinity and comparative theology, the Pope will face backlash either way. Either from followers in the West that believe the change is going too slow or from believers in more conservative areas where same-sex relations are still illegal.
The overarching question is whether the stance the Pope will take regarding the matter will result in realized changes within the religious realm, if he takes a stance officially at all. It is curious as his more liberal ideas are not a sudden revelation and have been showcased throughout the years, and yet there is a lack of doctrinal changes to show for it. This proves to be a difficult prediction as the Vatican itself has often put out clarifications that the Pope’s past actions are in no way an endorsement for homosexuality by the Church, sending a confusing message to believers worldwide. What exactly is the Vatican’s stance on the matter? How can there be opposing beliefs taken by the Church and its leader? After all, Pope Francis’ position as the head of Church sets the tone for Catholics everywhere. Perhaps, the most likely scenario is the words of Nowal Norah Augustus, a Catholic teacher, who hopes that with the nudge in a more open direction, “the Church might relent, but it will not be easy or unanimous.”