Notes & Essays

Pope Francis Just Voiced Support For Same-Sex Civil Unions. Now What?

First of all, we need to recognize that this was a pretty big step for a Church that’s over 2,000 years old.
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News that Pope Francis expressed support for same-sex civil unions began to spread in the early hours of Thursday (October 22) Manila time. For once it was refreshing to read headlines about gay people in a more positive light, without words like “condemn” or “harassed” or even “killed” or some variation snuck in there somewhere. People who bet that hell would freeze over the day the Catholic Church takes a less-than-hostile stance against homosexuality must have had visions of snowflakes landing on the devil’s nose.

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For all the reactions—from smoke-out-of-the-ears outrage to the dance-in-the-streets celebration—that his words caused around the world, we mustn’t forget that this isn’t the first time that this particular Pope has gone out of his way to voice a message of tolerance and inclusivity for homosexuals, and in the process, stoke the fires of debate within and outside his flock.

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Pope Francis on gay people

In 2014, in a first for the Catholic Church, it was reported that an official Vatican document had some surprisingly compassionate things to say about gay people. 

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"Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a further space in our communities?” it said. “Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of proving that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony? 

"Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners," the document added.

Even if you don’t follow religious news, that was a pretty big deal. It’s like seeing your hopelessly homophobic Uncle Junjun Or Lolo Boyet—that crusty old relative who warned you that the fires of hell and eternal damnation await those who straddled any point in the line between absolutely male and absolutely female—suddenly having beers and chatting good-naturedly with Trizsha from the neighborhood salon. 

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To put this into perspective, Pope Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger) was, in the past, quoted as saying that gay people are “intrinsically disordered.” Benedict was, as most people know, a hardline conservative, in as much as the Pope we have now is, well, not. Pope Francis was reportedly present at the synod (a bishop’s assembly) when the document was read. 

Social media reactions

Back then, as it is now, it didn’t take long for people to make their feelings about this bit of news known. Pope Francis was unequivocal in his statement: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered,” the Pope reportedly says on camera in a new documentary called Francesco

Social media exploded almost instantaneously. Perhaps it’s just my own personal network, but most comments I’ve seen are some form of a virtual “thumbs up” for this truly groundbreaking pronouncement. It seems most people see this shift in the Church’s policy about homosexuality as nothing less than extraordinary.

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And it is. Lest people forget, we’re talking about a 2000-year-old institution, with tenets and traditions that have been so deeply ingrained in the psyche of its most ardent followers they may as well be carved on the actual rock upon which St. Peter’s Basilica supposedly stands. It’s a big deal because, in the context of a major religion that has kept its most basic beliefs virtually intact for two millennia, it’s unheard of. Pope Francis is the first pontiff in history to make such a bold declaration. No wonder the mouths of the most staunchly conservative Catholics are already frothing. 

But just to be clear, what Pope Francis is supporting is civil unions of same-sex couples. The pontiff has not explicitly endorsed marriage between gay people within the Church (and it's unlikely he ever will). Essentially, a civil union is an arrangement between two consenting adults recognized by law that grants the same legal rights as a traditional marriage. For many gay people, that’s enough. It’s literally just giving them all the things that straight couples have enjoyed for centuries, including some that many take for granted, like visitation rights when one person is sick, and inheritance laws. 

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In short, allowing civil unions for same-sex couples is giving them equal rights as heterosexual couples. No more, no less. How people can bend and twist this logic to suit their own narrow-minded prejudice and homophobia is beyond me.

“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family,” Pope Francis reportedly says elsewhere in the documentary. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”

The next best thing

What Pope Francis said is a good thing and a huge step forward for how the world sees homosexuals. But there's still lots of work to do. Just because the Pope said something doesn't mean governments of the world will automatically bend over and adjust their laws (although many states already allow civil unions for gay couples, including staunchly Catholic countries like Ireland, Italy, and Argentina, Pope Francis’ own home country). Here in the Philippines, it’s heartening to know that President Rodrigo Duterte has said he is in favor of laws that will allow civil unions between same-sex couples, according to his spokesperson Harry Roque.

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The question now is, can the Catholic Church—as well as its most ardent believers and followers—recognize and follow Pope Francis’ lead and start doing more to show sympathy and inclusiveness toward alternative lifestyles and preferences?

Of course, they can. But will they? Don’t hold your breath.

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Pope Francis may be worlds different from his predecessor, but he is still the leader of a group with a billion followers, most of whom are not ready for something as radical as gay relationships. (And despite the seemingly open society we currently inhabit, in many parts of the world, the mere concept of anything other than male-female partnerships might as well be alien). We may not see a Church that will accept and embrace gay people as much as we would like it to in this lifetime, but a Church that has proven that it is not averse to a discussion about it might be the next best thing.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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