How significant is Pope Francis’ recent statement on same-sex relationships?

Pope Francis recently made headlines for expressing his belief that same-sex couples should be entitled to “civil unions” and welcomed in the Catholic church. This has been considered a departure from the traditional Catholic or Christian view. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” and to be approved “under no circumstances.” In Catholic doctrine, same-sex relationships are particularly unacceptable because they are considered to remove the potential for new life from the dynamic of sex.

It’s worth noting that the Pope only advocated for civil unions, not going so far as to pledge support for same-sex marriage. In this sense, he hasn’t actually said anything new. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he opposed the legalisation of gay marriage in Argentina in 2010, but still advocated for civil unions. In 2013, he famously commented “who am I to judge” an allegedly gay priest whilst on a flight. As a result, his (rather base level) statement that gay people should be tolerated and entitled to equal legal protections in the form of civil unions comes with some personal precedent and are therefore no surprise.

Christianity and the Bible have regularly been weaponised against the LGBT community and used as a tool to justify homophobia, particularly Leviticus 18:22, which calls same-sex relations an “abomination.” However, the exact same term, “abomination,” is also used in Leviticus 11:10 to describe the act of eating “all that have not fins and scales in the seas.” I sincerely doubt anybody enjoying a meal of Moules Marinère has ever been told they’re going to hell, suggesting that biblical justification for homophobia demonstrates, at best, an irony deficiency.

Arguably, despite the current Pope being viewed as having more liberal interpretations of the Catholic faith, nothing that he’s said about same-sex relationships meaningfully contradicts its doctrine. The aforementioned Catechism of the Catholic Church also dictates that “homosexual persons ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity,’” disapproving of “unjust discrimination” against them. As a result, the Pope’s support for civil unions, which effectively provide equal legal protections to a marriage despite maintaining a distinction between the one that is unholy and the one that is sacred; does not upend any long-standing Catholic teaching.

A participant flutters a rainbow flag at the Angel of Independence monument although the Mexican LGBT community called for an online gay pride celebration as a protective measure amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Mexico City, Mexico June 27, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Photo credit: Reuters

However, just because the Pope has not upended Church teaching does not mean that his words are insignificant. Support for civil unions, as small as it may be, is still something of a step forward. More conservative Catholics are wary that civil unions may prove a slippery slope, eventually undermining Church views of ‘traditional’ marriage. Additionally, Pope John Paul II oversaw the publishing of a statement in 2003 affirming opposition to such unions: “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way … to legal recognition of homosexual unions.” As a result, despite how bare-boned Pope Francis’ statement may appear to LGBT Catholics, they have still hailed it a considerable step forward.

Regardless, Pope Francis has still not really changed any of the Church’s fundamental teachings – meaning that it therefore remains to be seen whether this recent statement will have any impact in societies that have so far been unwilling to embrace marriage equality, particularly those in the global south. Ultimately, his recent words are unlikely to make any tangible impact considering that a genuine change in Church doctrine to encourage tolerance towards same-sex relationships would require a formal procedure and far more internal debate in an environment that, despite the Pope’s statement, still harbours scepticism towards same-sex relationships. For example, Bishop of Providence Thomas Joseph Tobin, a frequent critic of Pope Francis, stated that the Pope’s statement “clearly contradicts” Church teaching, affirming a belief shared by many of the Catholic clergy that same-sex relationships are “objectively immoral,” and that civil unions are “not admissible.” It is therefore clear what kind of opposition any kind of Catholic movement to liberalise official Church teaching on homosexuality would face.

In short, Pope Francis’ statement does not meaningfully represent an imminent change in official Church policy. It does at the very least, however, demonstrate that at the core of Church leadership, stances regarding same-sex relationships are softening, albeit at a snail’s pace. Perhaps this indicates that some degree of liberalisation of Church policy on same-sex unions is not an entirely irrational forecast.