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Editorial: On civil unions, the Church needs and deserves clarity
It’s been a while since our Pope of Surprises made front pages around the globe for commenting on a hot-button issue. But the release of the documentary “Francesco” — which contained a statement by Pope Francis on civil unions — has recalled the early years of his papacy, when comments such as breeding “like rabbits” and “who am I to judge?” tore at lightspeed through the media.
In this instance, while speaking in Spanish, Pope Francis said in the documentary, “Homosexual people have a 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 create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”
Since being made public on Oct. 21, these comments have been discussed at length, including by John Grabowski in his excellent analysis for Our Sunday Visitor. “To assume that there is a doctrinal conflict of some kind here is fundamentally mistaken,” he writes. “There is no doctrinal conflict because there is no doctrine proposed by Pope Francis in the documentary or by the CDF in the 2003 document. Doctrine, by definition, is at a level deeper than prudential judgment.” In his column, OSV Publisher Scott P. Richert makes the argument as to why he believes the pope’s prudential judgment on this topic is in error. The pope, like all human beings, is not always right. Without meaning disrespect for the office, the powers or the person of the papacy, a faithful Catholic is able to respectfully ignore or disagree with some of what he says.
But rather than simply commenting on the pope’s words themselves, this Editorial Board feels compelled to underscore the deeply unfortunate state of confusion and highly disturbing lack of clarity that have resulted because of them.
What follows is merely a snapshot of media coverage. Good Morning America said the pope’s comments signaled “a new direction for the Catholic Church” and were a “major departure from the position of the Vatican’s own teachings.” CBS News called it a “deviation from Church doctrine.” A popular newspaper in the United Kingdom blared “Pope Blesses Gay Weddings” on its front page. Writing in The Guardian, James Alison stated, “Francis’ position is inconceivable for someone who believes same-sex acts to be mortal sins, leading those involved to go to hell. If you believed those things you would seek to break up such couples, not stabilize them. From which we can deduce that Pope Francis does not believe those things.”
And so here we are, with confusion over Church teaching and with Pope Francis labeled as a heretic by some prominent Catholics. And it doesn’t seem that any clarification is planned from the Vatican. As the Associated Press reported recently: “The Vatican has refused to comment and imposed something of a media blackout on the matter. None of the Vatican’s in-house media has reported on the cut quote, and on Friday the Il Fatto Quotidiano daily quoted an email from a staffer in the Vatican’s communications ministry to other staff saying there wouldn’t be any comment, but that ‘talks are underway to deal with the current media crisis.'”
The Vatican has a history of mostly choosing not to clarify, at least immediately and through traditional communications channels, Pope Francis’ controversial comments. But when it comes to his latest comments on civil unions, we strongly encourage a different strategy. Pope Francis should make clear what his thinking about civil unions does and does not mean, and he should reiterate, clearly and charitably, the Church’s doctrine on marriage. Doing so would be of great benefit to the faithful who, at times in this pontificate, have felt as if they are passengers on a ship without a rudder. It would also be of great support to the bishops and priests receiving phone calls and letters from bewildered and hurt Catholics in their parishes and dioceses. But most importantly, clarity will ensure the protection of the Deposit of Faith — the Church’s teachings that, while sometimes challenging, are, more importantly, true.
As the old saying goes, “you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.” The Holy Father’s words on civil unions, while a prudential judgment, have been misunderstood and misconstrued by media and individuals around the world. The lack of clarification by the Vatican in the days following, however, has been even worse.
Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young