Pope Francis became the first pontiff to endorse same-sex civil unions this week, in comments aired in a documentary that premiered Wednesday.
The Argentine pontiff’s remarks sparked cheers from gay Catholics and demands for clarification from conservatives, given the Vatican’s official teaching on the issue.
The papal pronouncement came midway through the feature-length documentary Francesco, which premiered at the Rome Film Festival. The film, which features fresh interviews with the pope, delves into issues Francis cares about most, including the environment, poverty, migration, racial and income inequality, and the people most affected by discrimination.
“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God,” Francis said. “You can't kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”
While serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis endorsed civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriages. However, he had never come out publicly in favour of civil unions as pope, and no pontiff before him had, either.
‘Major step forward’
The comments caused a firestorm, thrilling progressives and alarming conservatives.
The Reverend James Martin, a Jesuit who has sought to build bridges with gay Catholics, praised the comments as “a major step forward in the Church’s support for LGBT people.”
"The pope’s speaking positively about civil unions also sends a strong message to places where the Church has opposed such laws," Martin said in a statement.
However, Ed Mechmann, director of public policy at the Archdiocese of New York, said in a blog post that the pope had simply “made a serious mistake."
Catholic teaching holds that gay people must be treated with dignity and respect but that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” A 2003 document from the Vatican’s doctrine office stated the Church’s respect for gay people “cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”
Doing so, the Vatican reasoned, would not only condone “deviant behaviour," but create an equivalence to marriage, which the Church holds is an indissoluble union between man and woman. That document was signed by the then-prefect of the office, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI and Francis’ predecessor.
Questions swirled Thursday about the origins of Francis’ bombshell comments, with all evidence suggesting he made them in a previous interview that was never broadcast in its entirety.
The scene of his interview is identical to one from 2019 with Mexican broadcaster Televisa, but his comments about the need for legal protections for civil unions were apparently never aired by Televisa – nor by the Vatican when it put out its recordings of it.
Televisa has not confirmed that the comments were made during its interview, in which the pope insisted that “I always defended doctrine," in opposing same-sex marriage during his time in Argentina.
Director Evgeny Afineevsky, who is gay, expressed surprise after the premiere that the pope's comments had created such a firestorm, saying Francis wasn't trying to change doctrine but was merely expressing his belief gay people should enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals. He insisted the pope made the comments to him directly, through a translator, but declined to say when.
Afineevsky had remarkable access to cardinals, the Vatican television archives and the pope himself. He said he negotiated his way in through persistence, and deliveries of mate and alfajores via well-connected Argentines in Rome.
“Listen, when you are in the Vatican, the only way to achieve something is to break the rule and then to say, ‘I’m sorry,’” Afineevsky said in an interview.
The director worked official and unofficial channels starting in 2018, and ended up so close to Francis by the end of the project that he showed him the movie on his iPad in August.
The two recently exchanged Yom Kippur greetings; Afineevsky is a Russian-born, Israeli-raised Jew now based in Los Angeles. On Wednesday, Afineevsky's 48th birthday, the director said the Argentine pontiff presented him with a birthday cake at the Vatican.
The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was once fervently opposed to gay marriage. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he launched what gay activists remember as a “war of God" against Argentina's move to approve same-sex marriage.
The pope's authorised biographer, Sergio Rubin, said at the time of his 2013 election that Bergoglio was politically wise enough to know the Church couldn’t win a fight against gay marriage. Instead, Rubin said, Bergoglio urged his fellow bishops to lobby for gay civil unions.
Francis all but confirms Rubin's account of what transpired in the film. Of his belief in the need for legislation to protect gay couples in civil relationships, he says: “I stood up for that."
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an organisation of LGBT Catholics, praised Francis’ comments as a “historic” shift for a Church that has a record of persecuting gays.
“At the same time, we urge Pope Francis to apply the same kind of reasoning to recognise and bless these same unions of love and support within the Catholic Church, too," he said in a statement.
by Nicole Winfield, Associated Press