Pope Francis, Civil Unions, and Moral Truth

Published Date: October 27, 2020 | Topics: Civil Rights and Liberties, Philosophy, Religion

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Moral truths are what they are. Human beings can fail to grasp them. They can defy them even if they do grasp them—people have free will. Human beings cannot, however, change them.

Catholics believe that the Church is a reliable teacher of moral truth and that when it teaches something definitively (by its own explicit criteria for “definitive” teachings), it is, by the grace of God, protected from teaching moral error. Under certain circumstances, the pope can do so in the name of the Church. By the Church’s own understanding of morality and truth, however, the Church herself cannot—and the pope cannot—make what is inherently morally wrong permissible. It—and he—cannot change moral truth. Nor can the Church—or the pope—change teachings about moral truth (or other matters of faith) on which the Church has taught definitively.

Last week, as a result of reports of comments by Pope Francis that are evidently contained in a video biography of the pope, the media were filled with stories of the Pope changing, or planning to change, Catholic teaching about morality—if not changing morality itself—on matters that have long been the subjects of definitive teachings of the Church. The subject was the one on which the Church’s teaching is most dramatically at odds with the dogmas of contemporary secular progressivism—sexuality and marriage. The pope endorsed, we were told, “same-sex civil unions,” thus overturning the historic Catholic teaching that sex outside the bond of marriage, considered as the conjugal union of husband and wife, is in principle immoral, as well as the longstanding teaching that homosexual inclinations, inasmuch as they are not ordered to the unitive and procreative good of marriage, are intrinsically disordered. Sexual progressives—including those identifying as Catholic—cheered. Traditionalists booed.

It has now become clear that the Pope’s remarks were made back in 2019. And while we still don’t have the full context (and it appears that the documentary maker spliced and diced several different quotes from the pope to make them appear as if they formed one single quotation), there is a plausible interpretation of Pope Francis’s comments under which they are consistent with historic Catholic teaching and moral reality.

However, it is up to Pope Francis to make clear that this interpretation is sound, and lest the faithful be kept in confusion (and distress), it is his obligation to provide the necessary clarification. We do not propose to speak for the Pope; nor do we seek to absolve him from what seems to us his duty to speak. As the Catholic journalist John Allen has noted, “if a leader believes he or she has been misrepresented and yet remains silent, even sending signals of approval, then ownership of that message shifts to the leader.” Clear teaching is all the more pressing given the headlines we’re now seeing about the president of Venezuela: “Venezuela’s Maduro, citing Pope, asks congress to consider same-sex marriage.” Ambiguity about the truth will be used against the truth.

The Nature of Marriage, Sexual Ethics, and the Law

The Catholic Church has consistently taught these basic truths or straightforward implications of the moral law:

  1. Marriage is the conjugal union of husband and wife. It is a bond consummated and actualized by sexual intercourse uniting spouses as one flesh, and naturally oriented to, and uniquely apt for, the bearing and rearing of children.
  2. All non-marital sexual acts—including same-sex acts—are immoral.
  3. All people are made in God’s image and likeness and are, as such, bearers of profound, inherent, and equal dignity. Those who experience same-sex attraction, no less than others, are precious in God’s sight, and they are to be loved and treated with benevolence and generosity as well as justice. They, no less than anyone else, are subjects of moral duties as well as rights, and they are called, as all of us are, to exercise the virtue of chastity.
  4. Children have a right to be raised by a mother and a father whenever reasonably possible.
  5. The political common good depends on marriage as the basis of the family and the fundamental unit of society. By eroding people’s understanding of marriage and of children’s right to a mother and a father, and by sanctioning non-marital sexual partnerships, the legal recognition of same-sex relationships as marriages harms the public good. It is therefore unjust.
  6. It is likewise unjust for government to undermine the institution of marriage through competing “marriage-lite” unions, or to promote non-marital sexual activity by this or other means. Insofar as “civil unions” do so, they must be opposed.

We think the first three truths have been taught in ways that satisfy the Catholic Church’s explicit criteria for definitive (and thus irreformable) teaching. The subsequent three truths follow from the preceding ones (and have been affirmed by popes and bishops as well, though not taught definitively). No one could change these teachings. No pope can change them. Pope Francis’s informal comments reported in the news last week strike us as re-affirming point 3, but calling into question point 6. More on that below.

Fundamental moral and metaphysical realities cannot be altered by human willing or declaring. Thus, no public official or religious leader can change the nature of marriage or the moral status of non-marital sexual conduct. But some laws do obscure the nature of marriage and encourage (and even facilitate and license) non-marital sexual acts. The Church has long opposed them for that reason. For a law to serve the common good, it must reflect the truth about marriage. Getting marriage law wrong harms the common good and harms people who act based on a faulty notion of what marriage is.

The same thing is true for civil unions that are just “gay marriage” by another name. Whether labelled “marriage” or not, such legal arrangements do harm if they obscure the true nature of marriage by creating a competing institution that mimics marriage, and if they directly encourage and promote non-marital sexual relationships. They do this if they provide legal benefits that are predicated on the presence (or expectation) of a non-marital sexual relationship—for example, if they are made available only to two men or two women who are unrelated to each other.

In 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith authoritatively taught “that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.” The CDF explained 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.

In other words, legal institutions that intentionally promote immorality are themselves immoral, and thus no one should support them.

This does not, however, exclude the possibility of other policies that would provide certain legal rights and benefits for people who undertake the obligation to care for and support others, or each other, if those policies do not compete with marriage or single out non-marital sexual partnerships. Anyone who is not married, for whatever reason, whether committed to living with a sibling or a friend or alone, may find it useful or advantageous to designate non-spouses for a variety of roles—hospital visitation and power of attorney, next-of-kin, insurance beneficiary, etc. And so public policy could be crafted to address those needs, quite independently of any considerations having to do with sex. If this is what is meant by civil unions, it is not intrinsically immoral to support them: they do not intentionally incentivize non-marital sexual activity, nor do they equate non-marital sexual relationships with marital ones. (In our book What Is Marriage and in a 2009 essay, we discussed such legal proposals and noted important prudential reasons to be skeptical of them, as indeed we are, but the case for or against them will be just that—a prudential one, based on a weighing of social costs and benefits.)

The former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada, did something like this as an employment policy when he was Archbishop of San Francisco. Here’s how the Catholic News Agency described it when Levada passed away last year:

Before his appointment to Rome, Levada served as Archbishop of San Francisco for 10 years, from 1995. While in that archdiocese, Levada was known as a vocal defender of the Church’s teaching on marriage as the city of San Francisco expanded domestic partnership benefits to same-sex and unmarried cohabitating couples.

In order to avoid the archdiocese’s being forced to recognize illicit relationships, Levada instituted a policy that allowed unmarried employees in the archdiocese to select any person they lived with as their “domestic partner,” regardless of the nature of their relationship.

The basic idea was to treat “civil unions” or “domestic partnerships” as exactly that—an arrangement to address shared domestic or civil responsibilities, not responsibilities predicated on sexual activity or a sexual relationship. There are prudential reasons to oppose the creation of such legal entities—for example, California’s civil unions law was used in court precisely to strike down California’s Prop 8, which defined marriage correctly—but there is nothing intrinsic to a civil union (a legal fiction created by positive law) that has to conflict with moral reality, and it is possible to imagine circumstances in which they would be the prudent choice, all things considered.

Indeed, the current Archbishop of San Francisco, and the former chair of the USCCB’s defense of marriage committee, Salvatore J. Cordileone, responded to this week’s news by pointing out how a civil union could be structured. He writes: “a civil union of this type (one which is not equated to marriage) should be as inclusive as possible, and not be restricted to two people of the same sex in a presumed sexual relationship. There is no reason, for example, why a brother and a sister, both of whom are unmarried and support each other, should not have access to these kinds of benefits.”

Pope Francis’s Comments

From media reports, and subsequent analysis, it appears that five different phrases from the Pope were spliced together to make them seem like one continuous whole. Of course, we ourselves don’t know the full context, and we caution against rushing to judgment. It strikes us that the cause of truth would best be served by the Pope himself making clear what he meant and means. That said, let’s look at what he said in two parts.

First and most straightforward, in the documentary film Francis is presented as saying: “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.” This “quote” is actually a pastiche of three different sentences placed together from a 2019 interview. Here’s the original full text, with the phrases creating this new “quote” in bold:

“I was asked a question on a flight—after it made me mad, made me mad for how one news outlet transmitted it—about the familial integration of people with homosexual orientation, and I said, homosexual people have a right to be in the family, people with homosexual orientation have a right to be in the family and parents have the right to recognize that son as homosexual, that daughter as homosexual. Nobody should be thrown out of the family, or be made miserable because of it.”

“Another thing is, I said when you see some signs in the children and from there send them to— I should have said a ‘professional,’ what came out was ‘psychiatrist.’ I meant to say a professional because sometimes there are signs in adolescence or pre-adolescence that they don’t know if they are homosexually oriented or if it is that the thymus gland didn’t atrophy in time. Who knows, a thousand things, no? So, a professional. The title of the daily paper: ‘The Pope sends homosexuals to the psychiatrist.’ It’s not true!”

“They asked me the same question another time and I repeated it, ‘They are children of God, they have a right to a family, and such.’ Another thing is—and I explained I was wrong with that word, but I meant to say this: When you notice something strange—‘Ah, it’s strange.’—No, it’s not strange. Something that is outside of the usual. That is, not to take a little word to annul the context. There, what I said is that they ‘have a right to a family.’ And that doesn’t mean to approve of homosexual acts, not at all.”

As this context suggests, Pope Francis was making the entirely uncontroversial point that people with same-sex attractions are children of God and members of families—brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins. That children with same-sex attractions should not be thrown out of the house, and adult relatives with same-sex attractions should not be excluded from family activities (though obviously consideration should be given to how they or indeed any relatives or friends by their conduct and example might support or undermine efforts of parents to form children in the truth). In sum, no one should be made miserable because of the particular challenges they face; everyone should be assisted in meeting them in morally upright ways.

Second, in the film Francis is presented as saying: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I supported that.” The public has very limited context for this “quote.” These lines, too, come from the same 2019 interview as the above. And we now know that the third sentence here was spliced to follow the first two as if it were one continuous whole. Here’s how the Catholic News Agency describes the 2019 interview with Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki:

During a discussion on the pope’s opposition to a same-sex marriage proposal when he was an archbishop in Argentina, Alazraki asked Pope Francis if he had adopted more liberal positions after becoming pope, and if so, whether that was attributable to the Holy Spirit.

Alazraki asked: “You waged a whole battle over egalitarian weddings, of couples of the same sex in Argentina. And later they say that you arrived here, they elected you pope and you appeared much more liberal than what you were in Argentina. Do you recognize yourself in this description that some people who knew you before make, and was it the grace of the Holy Spirit that gave you a boost? (laughs)”

According to America Magazine, the pope responded that: “The grace of the Holy Spirit certainly exists. I have always defended the doctrine. And it is curious that in the law on homosexual marriage. . . . It is an incongruity to speak of homosexual marriage. But what we have to have is a law of civil union (ley de convivencia civil), so they have the right to be legally covered.”

The last sentence was omitted when Alazraki’s interview was broadcast in 2019.

It is not clear when the pope said “I stood up for that,” or if that sentence references the remark on civil unions. The magazine also did not indicate how it had obtained the footage omitted from the publicly aired interview.

There is debate about the English translation of the original Spanish interview. Some have argued that the proper translation of “ley de convivencia civil” isn’t civil union law, but civil coexistence law. Regardless of the translation, the comment could mean any number of non-controversial measures that accord with metaphysical and moral reality, including the sort reflected in Archbishop Levada’s and Archbishop Cordileone’s proposals. Indeed, in a 2014 interview, Pope Francis emphasized that there’s no such thing as a “civil union” in the abstract, but a variety of legal instruments governments could create, and they’d need to be evaluated on their own terms:

Marriage is between a man and a woman. Secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of cohabitation, pushed by the demand to regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring health care. It is about pacts of cohabitating of various natures, of which I wouldn’t know how to list the different ways. One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.

It would be very helpful if the Pope made clear that any such laws should not be limited to those who are presumed to be in a sexual partnership—a limitation that would directly promote same-sex sexual partnerships.

One final point on the documentary film. It features a snippet from an interview in which the Pope says precisely that he “doesn’t mean to approve of homosexual acts, not at all.” For a lengthy documentation of Pope Francis on sexual morality, marriage, and civil unions, see this post from Fr. Matthew Schneider.

Living in Accordance with Metaphysical and Moral Reality Leads to Happiness

In What Is Marriage, we opposed a “consent-based” view of marriage that saw marriage as being primarily about companionship, establishing a companionate relationship with what one scholar called “your number one person.” We argued that a faulty understanding of marriage actually makes it harder for people to find happiness, both inside and outside of marriage. That a vision of marriage that sees it as just about whatever ordinary friendships and relationships have, but taken to the nth degree—that marriage is simply the best, most important of whatever makes human sociality good to begin with—gets marriage wrong in ways that can harm both married and unmarried people.

For married people it can make them presume that their marriage is to be their primary means of fulfillment in all the areas of their life, that they should be able to say of their spouse “you fulfill me.” But no one human being and relationship totally fulfills any of us. And no one should seek total fulfillment from their spouses or their marriage.

For unmarried people, it can make them feel—and the rest of society view them—as not only lacking one aspect of fulfillment, marriage itself, but as lacking the pinnacle of human fulfillment, and thus as not flourishing at all. A vision of marriage that sees the relationship between spouses as the peak of human sociality in turn renders the unmarried as second-class flourishers.

Instead, we should view marriage correctly, as a distinctive good with a distinctive nature: a conjugal union of husband and wife ordered to, and thus normatively shaped by its unique aptness for, the bearing and rearing of children. Doing so not only allows us to see family as involving much more than just the spouses themselves—to include extended family and friends grafted into the family—but also allows us to appreciate the unique and irreducible goodness of non-marital forms of human sociality.

A sound vision of marriage thus offers wide vistas of human fulfillment to people who may never marry, for whatever reason. It offers hope of meaningful non-sexual relationships to people who experience same-sex attraction in a way that makes forming a truly marital partnership impossible.

More deeply understanding the truth about marriage and human sexuality will help all of us flourish. And that, of course, is what a pastor like Pope Francis desires. We can understand—indeed we share—the frustration of our fellow Catholics with the ways in which the Holy Father conducts interviews and the ways in which the media distorts them, but we must not do anything to undermine the truth that sets us free.

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