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What Did the Pope Say About Gay Marriage? An Explainer

Read what Pope Francis had to say about same-sex couples.

News just dropped that Pope Francis made a statement about civil unions for same-sex couples, a departure from what the Church has said in the past about this topic. If you’re wondering what happened and what it means, here are some answers.

What did the pope actually say?

Pope Francis’ comments came from a documentary that premiered at a film festival in Rome on Oct. 21. The film, “Francesco,” tells of the pope’s life and ministry, especially how he approaches social issues of current concern. A major theme of his papacy has been outreach to those on the margins such as migrants and refugees, victims of clergy sexual abuse, those living in poverty, and the unborn.

The documentary addresses how the pope has reached out to those who identify as LGBTQ as one example of how he is showing concern for those living on the peripheries. “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it,” Pope Francis said during an interview for the documentary. “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”

Why is this statement important?

The reason this statement is spreading as news is because it’s a departure from what the Church has said before about same-sex unions. 

Gay marriage, as it is commonly understood, is a rather new phenomenon in society and the Church’s response to it has been to reaffirm what is true about sacramental marriage for thousands of years: it is a sacred and lifelong union between a man and a woman that is open to family life by welcoming biological children. 

Previous popes have reiterated the Church’s respect and love for those with same-sex attraction, while also acknowledging that laws recognizing gay marriage — including civil unions — could undermine traditional marriage as the basis of family life and the fundamental unit of society. 

What’s the difference between gay marriage and civil unions?

Gay marriage is a common term today, but what the Church and what the law mean by that phrase are slightly different.

The U.S. and many Western nations have adopted laws that recognize gay marriage as the legal union of a same-sex couple. But in the Church, marriage is a term that has always referred to the sacramental union between a man and a woman. 

Sacraments are signs of God’s grace in our lives — they are signs instituted by Jesus that make real what they signify. The Eucharist, for example, is not just a meal that reminds us of Jesus’ presence — it makes Jesus really and truly present to us. Similarly, marriage is a sacrament in that the union of a man and a woman is not just a sign of God’s love for the world, but it makes that love actually present in the spouses, their family life, and in their networks of relationships. 

Pope Francis’ comments about same-sex unions indicates his support for recognizing civil unions for gay couples so that they can enjoy the same social benefits and protections under the law as other married couples. Up to now, popes have reinforced official Church teaching on the matter, which has opposed gay marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples, so this could signal the beginning of a new development in that position. 

So what does all of this mean? 

First of all, the pope made these comments in an interview, so his statement is not infallible and does not mean that the Church recognizes gay marriage. One statement by the pope in an interview does not change Church teaching. 

We should also recognize that there is a hierarchy of truths in the Catholic faith. Civil unions and gay marriage are important matters, to be sure, but they are not on the same level as what we believe about the Trinity or the dignity of the human person, for example. There are many, many layers between a comment made by the pope and official Church teaching. 

Pope Francis’ comments simply mean that he supports civil protections for same-sex couples. Such a development, if it were taken up by other bishops and articulated more formally by the Church, would preserve the Church’s understanding of sacramental marriage while acknowledging the legal rights of same-sex couples.

In the big picture, with this statement, Pope Francis is continuing to lead the Church to the peripheries of society — to open her doors to those who feel excluded. So this statement fits in a wider pattern of Pope Francis reaching out to welcome LGBTQ people. For example, in 2013, he was asked about gay priests and replied, “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?” And, as America Magazine’s coverage of this news explains:

He has met with L.G.B.T. Catholics throughout his pontificate, and though he has issued repeated warnings against what he calls “gender ideology,” Pope Francis has urged Catholics to focus on the humanity of L.G.B.T. people. Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse who clashed with church leaders over the pope’s handling of sexual abuse in Chile, has developed a friendship with Francis. In the documentary, Mr. Cruz says he has discussed his sexuality with the pope, who told him, “God made you gay. God loves you like you are and you have to love yourself.”

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