Explainer: What Pope Francis actually said about civil unions—and why it matters

Pope Francis greets Evgeny Afineevsky, a documentary filmmaker, at his general audience at the Vatican in this Aug. 28, 2019, photo. (CNS photo/Vatican Media via Evgeny Afineevsky)

Editor’s note: This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

In a new documentary that premiered in Rome yesterday, Pope Francis appeared to endorse civil unions for same-sex couples for the first time as pope.

As portrayed in the documentary, the pope says: “Homosexual people have the 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 have is a civil union law—that way they are legally covered. I supported that.”

After the film’s release, questions arose about the quote’s origin, whether the pope’s words had been manipulated either through video editing or a mistranslation, if they were new or simply a repetition of what he had said before and whether this statement signified a change in church teaching.

Did the pope “endorse” civil unions?

The pope’s words in the film are an endorsement of civil union protections for same-sex couples, in that the pope publicly expressed support for them.

But as the pope has often said, this does not mean that he believes that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. On a number of occasions, Francis has warned against threats to the institution of marriage and described marriage as “between a man and a woman.” Accepting gay family members or accommodating same-sex partnerships in civil law, he said, “does not mean approving of homosexual acts.”

The pope’s words in the film are an endorsement of civil union protections for same-sex couples, in that the pope publicly expressed support for them.

In the new documentary, however, he clearly expresses an openness for such legal protections. In fact, Pope Francis’ support of civil unions dates back to his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires, when he proposed civil unions as an alternative to gay marriage, a position he has reiterated as recently as 2017.

Was the pope mistranslated?

Some commentators have argued that the subtitles in Mr. Afineevsky’s film, which were the translation most English-language journalists used in their reporting, were not faithful to what Pope Francis said in the clip. The discrepancy comes down to Pope Francis referring to a law of “convivencia civil,” or “civil cohabitating,” which critics argue is different from the subtitles’ use of “civil union.”

The Argentinian journalist Elisabetta Piqué (disclosure: Ms. Piqué is married to America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell) said in an interview that the two terms are often used interchangeably in Argentina when speaking about laws.

The archbishop of La Plata, Argentina, said likewise in an interview today.

Is this “old news”?

Pope Francis has indeed spoken about legal protections for same-sex couples living together before.

As America’s Michael J. O’Loughlin reported yesterday,

Before he was elected pope, Francis served as archbishop of Buenos Aires, and in that role, he advocated for same-sex civil unions in an attempt to block a same-sex marriage law. Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, which then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio called a “destructive attack on God’s plan.” But in meetings with other Argentine bishops, Cardinal Bergoglio urged them to support civil unions as a way to keep marriage distinctly heterosexual. Bishops rejected the idea, but an L.G.B.T. activist in Argentina said the cardinal called him to say he personally supported the idea of civil unions.

When Francis was elected pope in 2013, the director of Argentina’s Catholic news agency denied that the pope had supported civil unions; however, the pope’s statement “I stood up for that” in the new documentary seems to affirm that he had, indeed, supported these protections.

The pope also spoke about civil unions for same-sex couples in interviews in 2014 and 2017, but neither is explicit in its support as the pope’s statement in the new documentary. In a 2014 interview with Italy’s Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis was asked if the church could understand the approach of legalizing civil unions. Francis responded by saying, “Marriage is between a man and a woman,” drawing his usual distinction between a marriage and a civil union. He explained that states “want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of coexistence, driven by the need to regulate economic aspects between people, such as ensuring health care. These are coexistence agreements of various kinds, of which I cannot list the different forms.” His response on the church’s perspective on such agreements? “We need to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.”

The pope spoke about civil unions for same-sex couples in interviews in 2014 and 2017, but neither is explicit in its support as the pope’s statement in the new documentary.

A Vatican communications advisor said after the 2014 interview that the pope had not intended his comments as an endorsement of civil unions.

In 2017, the pope gave a book-length interview to French sociologist Dominique Walton, in which Mr. Walton asked him about same-sex marriage. The pope replied, “Let’s call this ‘civil unions,’” as opposed to “marriage.” He continued, “We do not joke around with truth.”

Some commentators, including the National Catholic Reporter’s Joshua McElwee, have taken these quotes to mean that the pope’s support expressed in the new documentary is “not news.” However, in those previous interviews, the pope’s comments could be interpreted as merely explaining how the church might respond to the legal reality of civil unions. This new footage shows the pope explicitly expressing support for giving same-sex couples the legal protections that civil unions provide, consistent with his previous support for such a law as bishop of Buenos Aires.

The comments in the new documentary are the pope’s first explicitly stated support for civil union protections: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”

Where did this quote come from?

In addition to these previous statements, questions have been raised about whether the interview that included footage of Pope Francis saying he supports civil unions was part of a conversation with the director of the new documentary, Evgeny Afineevsky, or if it came from an un-aired portion of an interview the pope gave to Televisa’s Valentina Alazraki.

Mr. Afineevsky has told multiple journalists that the quote about civil unions came from an interview he conducted with the pope through a translator, though he did not specify when the interview took place.

Contradicting Mr. Afineevsky, Antonio Spadaro, S.J., one of the pope’s most trusted communications advisors and the editor of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, claimed the clip was from Ms. Alazraki’s interview. Ms. Alazraki told the New York Times that she did not remember the pope making the comments to her.

“There’s nothing new because it’s a part of that interview,” Father Spadaro told The Associated Press when asked about the pope’s comments yesterday. “It seems strange that you don’t remember.”

No one remembered, however, because that part of the clip had never aired.

Mr. McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter compared the clips side by side and found that the pope’s quote about how gay people “have a right to be part of the family” was included in Mr. Afineevsky’s documentary but that the pope’s next line from Ms. Alazraki’s interview, repeating that they have a right to a family but “that does not mean approving of homosexual acts, not in the least,” was cut.

The next line in Mr. Afineevsky’s documentary, expressing the pope’s support for civil unions, was never published as part of Ms. Alazraki’s interview, which has caused some to question whether Televisa edited that portion out of the interview at the request of the Vatican.

As Associated Press reporter Nicole Winfield wrote,

The Vatican frequently edits the pope in official transcripts and videos, especially when he speaks on sensitive issues. It wasn't clear if the Vatican also insisted on having the final cut as a condition for the Televisa interview.

What also remains unclear is why the explosive comment was never aired—and if the Vatican forgot that it remained available on a recording in the Vatican archives, which were opened to filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky.

Televisa has not confirmed that the comments were made during its interview, but the scene of the documentary is identical to the Televisa interview, including the yellow background, a chair in the corner and slightly off-center placement of the chain of Francis’ pectoral cross.

The official 2019 Vatican News transcript of that interview, as well as the official Vatican edit, contains no such comment on the need for legal protections for civil unions. The official edit does include his comments on the need for gay people to feel they are part of a family, as he has said previously.

Ms. Alazraki told the National Catholic Reporter on Oct. 22 that Televisa was reviewing the clips and did not comment further. Later that day, Televisa released a statement saying the footage was part of their 2019 interview. Sources close to the company told The New York Times that the Vatican had removed the footage, which was shot on Vatican cameras, before delivering it to Televisa.

Paolo Ruffini, the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications, has seen Mr. Afineevsky's documentary in its entirety and praised it. He has not publicly expressed concern about the quote on civil unions being included or edited.

On Nov. 1, after weeks of silence, the Vatican secretariat of state issued guidance to ambassadors to explain Francis’ comments. It said the comments on gay civil unions were taken out of context in a documentary that spliced together parts of an old interview but confirmed Francis’ belief that gay couples should enjoy legal protections. 

“More than a year ago, during an interview, Pope Francis answered two different questions at two different times that, in the aforementioned documentary, were edited and published as a single answer without proper contextualization, which has led to confusion,” the guidance said.

[Related: Vatican breaks silence, explains Pope Francis’ civil union comments]

In short, the sourcing and editing of the interview have been called into serious question. What is still clear, regardless of when the interview was recorded, is that this is the first time this quote from Pope Francis has been available to the public and that he explicitly endorses civil unions.

Does this change church teaching/doctrine?

Critics of the pope’s statement have raised concerns that the pope is contradicting previous teaching on civil unions. Most point to a 2003 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stating that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”

That document called politicians’ support of same-sex unions “gravely immoral” and said that “Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity. The church cannot fail to defend these values.”

At that time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was run by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Benedict XVI, and was at the service of Pope John Paul II. Those who argue that Pope Francis has changed church teaching also argue that he has departed from the teaching of the last two popes.

Has the pope changed church teaching? Not in the sense of altering any official doctrine.

But has the pope changed church teaching? Not in the sense of altering any official doctrine. However, Pope Francis is teaching by example about how to be more welcoming and respectful of L.G.B.T people, pulling back from an interpretation of church teaching that some have argued requires consistent opposition to L.G.B.T. civil rights.

There are different levels of church teaching—from infallible papal definitions of dogma and teachings of ecumenical councils at the top, then the pope’s official teaching in encyclicals and then a range of other acts, statements and documents from the pope and the Vatican. Interviews and speeches are not official magisterial documents, so the C.D.F.’s 2003 statement still stands as the official word on whether Catholics can support gay marriage. There is, however, room for disagreement on whether the 2003 statement concerns any civil protections for L.G.B.T. relationships or only those that treat them as identical to marriage.

Cardinal William Levada, who succeeded Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, determined in 1997 as archbishop of San Francisco that, in response to the city’s legalization of gay marriage, he would extend health care benefits to one other person living with any of his archdiocese’s employees, regardless of their relationship. That way, gay couples were covered, as were, for example, two unmarried siblings living together.

No, the pope has not changed church teaching, but he has certainly changed the pastoral tone with which the church approaches L.G.B.T. people.

If the 2003 document prohibits the church cooperating with protections for same-sex couples, then-Cardinal Levada, later the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, was himself in opposition to church teaching. It seems, then, that he would have understood the 2003 document as applying to marriages, not civil unions. And it seems that Francis has taken a similar approach, speaking positively of civil unions without being concerned that such an endorsement is tantamount to an approval of same-sex marriage, which he continues to oppose.

So, no, the pope has not changed church teaching, but he has certainly changed the pastoral tone with which the church approaches L.G.B.T. people. It was this change in tone that was widely celebrated by L.G.B.T. Catholics yesterday, including the advocacy groups Dignity and New Ways Ministry, who celebrated the statement on civil unions but were under no illusions that the church had changed its teaching on gay marriage.

What else has Pope Francis said on L.G.B.T. issues?

In addition to his several statements about civil unions, the pope has taken a more welcoming approach to L.G.B.T. Catholics many times. Other examples include his famous statement “Who am I to judge?” on gay priests, his statement this year to a group of parents of L.G.B.T. children that God loves their children and his reported statement to Juan Carlos Cruz, a gay man who is a survivor of sexual abuse, that God made him gay.

In the new documentary, the pope’s words are paired with the story of Andrea Rubera, a gay man who adopted three children with his partner. He had told the pope he wanted to raise his children in the church but was worried their family would be rejected for having two fathers. The pope, he said, did not offer his opinion on his family but urged them not to be afraid of going to church. The family has now been part of a parish for three years.

In addition to his several statements about civil unions, the pope has taken a more welcoming approach to L.G.B.T. Catholics many times.

The pope’s shift in the church’s tone and concern over whether he has changed church teaching have exacerbated the existing divide between Catholics who support the pope and those who oppose him, particularly in the United States.

Several bishops who have previously criticized the pope issued statements opposing the new comments. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, said, “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 Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, another vocal opponent of the pope, said in an interview, "What's getting broadcast around the world is Pope Francis' opinion on this, and I think that is confusing and very dangerous," adding "there are evil forces that would love to destroy the Catholic Church."

Boston’s Cardinal Seán O’Malley, a chief adviser of the pope, said in a statement that Francis “strongly and consistently teaches that marriage is between a man and woman for a lifetime and that this is God’s plan for having and raising children.”

The pope’s “endorsement of civil unions is not an endorsement of homosexual activity,” the cardinal said, while also noting that Francis is “very aware of the suffering and alienation of homosexual individuals, gay people, who are rejected by family and society.”

“Our task,” Cardinal O’Malley said, “is to show people that we love them and care about them and that together we can strive to be better people, more generous, more courageous and more faithful to what God is calling us to do.”

Update 10/23/2020 at 9:15 a.m.: This report has been updated to include Televisa's statement on the origin of the interview. 

Update 11/02/2020 at 1:30 p.m.: This report has been updated to include the Vatican’s statement on Pope Francis’ remarks about civil unions. 

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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