Pope Francis understands gay people a lot better than Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
In a shocking revelation today, the pope endorsed civil unions—not, it should be emphasized, religious marriage—for same-sex couples.
“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family,” the pontiff says in a new documentary called Francesco, opening in Rome this week. “They are children of God. 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.”
This is at once very big news, and totally in line with other comments Pope Francis has made over the years.
It’s very big news because the Catholic Church, which has 1.2 billion followers, officially regards homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered” and has, numerous times, opposed not only marriage but also secular, civil unions for lesbian and gay couples. It also, of course, has a long history of horrific acts against queer people, from the Third Lateran Council to HIV/AIDS.
It’s also big news because of the humanity of Pope Francis’ statement. He didn’t merely point to legal inequalities of being unable to obtain state recognition of one’s relationship. He focused on the personal, indeed spiritual, suffering that is part of that inequality.
This is consistent with years of statements and actions on the pope’s part.
In 2013, Pope Francis said of gay people, “Who am I to judge?” And in 2018, he reportedly told a gay man (not incidentally a survivor of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest) that “You have to be happy with who you are. God made you this way and loves you this way, and the pope loves you this way.”
Those were both revolutionary statements, even if they didn’t change official church teaching.
First, the Catholic church has been judging LGBTQ people for hundreds of years. Contrary to our own lived experiences and shared stories, the Church has told us that only certain relationships are moral, approved by God, and worthy of approbation. And those judgments led to actions that caused immense harm from violence against queer people to children being disowned by their families.
So, for the leader of the Church to simply “live and let [us] live” would represent a huge step forward.
Second, saying that God makes us gay—certainly the experience of many (though not all) religious LGBTQ people—flies in the face of the “intrinsically disordered” rhetoric (which, incidentally, was crafted by the future Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned and made way for Francis following the Vatican’s “gay mafia” scandal). Why would God make something “intrinsically disordered”?
So, in a sense, this new revelation is unsurprising, or at least consistent with what Pope Francis has said before.
But it is profoundly political as well.
Notably, Pope Francis did not mention the supposed hardship that my relationship places on people who would prefer not to recognize it.
Just two weeks ago, two justices of the Supreme Court said that marriage equality has had “ruinous consequences for religious liberty” and should be, if not fully overturned, at least “fixed.”
Why? Because to merely recognize the existence of a same-sex couple—married or joined in civil union or otherwise—is the same as endorsing it.
That’s been the throughline for all the LGBT-related “religious liberty” cases we’ve seen lately, all of which have been brought by religious fundamentalists—often, as in the case of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Becket Fund, conservative-Catholic ones, and often, the same ones pushing the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
A baker won’t sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. Why? Because doing so somehow means he believes in gay marriage, or approves of it, or is facilitating it. But isn’t it just selling a cake?
A foster agency won’t place a child with a gay couple. (This is a case the Supreme Court will hear next month.) Why? Because that somehow conveys approval or endorsement of their marriage. But isn’t it just following the law on the “best interests of the child”?
Kim Davis, in the case that provided Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Alito) his opportunity to hold forth on same-sex marriage, won’t sign a civil, secular, same-sex marriage license, as if she’s solemnizing that wedding in a chapel rather than performing her bureaucratic functions as a county clerk.
This is all ridiculous. We never treat transactions this way. When someone sells me a pie, they’re not endorsing my choice to throw it in a politician’s face. When a bureaucrat at the DMV gives me my license, they’re not approving of how I drive.
However these questions are adjudicated as a matter of law, Pope Francis’ comments reveal how insincere they are as a matter of religious declaration.
In fact, as Jesus said, we render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s. That is how living in the world works. We, individually or as a religious denomination, may or may not approve of gay marriage. The Catholic Church does not. But civil unions, and secular marriage in the United States, are not religious institutions. They are secular. Following them is like following stop signs and speed limits.
But more than that, as the pope made clear, following them is a moral responsibility. People are suffering–not Kim Davis, who after all is just being asked to do her secular job that has nothing to do with religion, but kids who are disowned by their parents, trans women beaten in the streets, religious gay people who choose a life of loneliness over one of love.
Believe me, as a rabbi, I know many of these suffering people very well. They are, as the pope said, “children of God.” But they often don’t feel that way.
Pope Francis’ statement does not change Church doctrine. It certainly doesn’t change American law. But if it stirs the heart of even one of those judges, politicians, and activists who profess the Catholic faith and act according to its teachings, it might just change history.