If the pope intended to express new views on same-sex civil unions with remarks published yesterday, he was floating a trial balloon — and this move suggests a fight inside the Vatican so bitter even the pope may even be worried about being shot down.
"Marriage is between a man and a woman," the pope said in an interview published in Italian by Corriere della Sera. "The secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of living together, driven by the need to regulate economic aspects between people, such as ensuring health care. These are coexistence agreements of various kinds, of which I wouldn't know how to identify their different forms. We have to look at the different cases and evaluate them in their variety."
Within hours, a Vatican spokesperson tried to walk back this statement, asserting, "The Pope did not choose to enter into debates about the delicate matter of gay civil unions."
Francis, back when he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, reportedly threw his weight behind civil unions before — and lost. When he was head of Argentina's bishop conference as the country passed a marriage equality law in 2010, Bergoglio reportedly tried to persuade his colleagues to endorse civil unions to head off the law's passage. He lost the internal debate to a more conservative faction of bishops, and then faithfully denounced the marriage law as being "sent by the Devil."
Now that he's the leader of the church, some LGBT activists have been hoping he might return to civil unions as a way for the church to soften its hard-line position against legal rights for same-sex couples. In October 2013, Human Rights Watch LGBT advocacy director Boris Dittrich asked about this possibility during a private meeting in Rome with the Gerhardt Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church organization that sets doctrine. His response signaled just how tough changing policy will be, even for the pontiff:
"That's not up to the pope, that's up to us," Müller responded, according to Dittrich. "We are the ones who set the policy."
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith spelled out its position in 2003, declaring, "Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, 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."
Müller was installed in his post by Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict, who had himself served as prefect under Pope John Paul II, where he had used the office to refocus church policy on issues like opposition to LGBT rights and abortion. Francis has been rumored to want to replace Müller ever since becoming pope last year, but if those rumors are true, he doesn't seem to feel he can push him out the door. (The rumors have been so persistent that Müller recently felt the need to respond, telling the German Kathpress news agency, "I am not [Pope Francis's] conservative opponent.") On Feb. 22, Francis elevated Müller from bishop to cardinal.
If the pope is trying to lay the groundwork for an eventual shift in church policy (or a relaxation of its current stance), the position of Argentina's bishop's conference — and his own previous statements — suggest what he might have in mind.
In an interview in October 2012 — before Bergoglio was made pope, but after he had finished his tenure as president of Argentina's bishops conference, the conference's special advisor on the family, Nicholas LaFierre, told me they would find it acceptable to "have regulation [of same-sex unions] with contract law or by other means of common law." What was not acceptable, he said, was any form of regulation "under family law."
In a series of interviews collected in the 2010 book On Heaven and Earth, Bergoglio said that while he opposed same-sex marriage or adoption rights for same-sex couples, his words suggest there might be space outside of family law for gay unions. "If there is a union of a private nature, there is neither a third party nor is society affected."
If the pope is trying to open the door to civil unions, it is no surprise he has to move slowly — the church is still divided over whether homosexuality should be criminalized. The Holy See is on record calling for the repeal of sodomy laws, but church leaders in places like Nigeria and Uganda have gone to bat to keep sodomy laws on the books or even endorsed stiffening the penalties and criminalizing LGBT rights advocacy.
And if the outward signs of this internal struggle are confusing along the way, no one should be surprised.
J. Lester Feder is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. His secure PGP fingerprint is 2353 DB68 8AA6 92BD 67B8 94DF 37D8 0A6F D70B 7211
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Ellie Hall is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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