Pope Francis supports same-sex unions

Penn experts weigh in on what this means for Catholics.

Pope Francis waving outdoors
As an Argentine cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio endorsed civil unions. Now, he becomes the first to do so as pope. 

The Catholic Church has long stated that marriage is between a man and a woman, a position Pope Francis supports. “Francesco,” a documentary that premiered on Wednesday, made clear that the pontiff also supports civil unions to ensure that same-sex couples have legal rights. Told through a series of interviews, “Francesco” centers on Francis’ life and teaching, with the hope that it “can help us build a bridge to a better future and grow as a global community,” Francis says. The film’s United States premiere is scheduled for Oct. 25 at the Savannah Film Festival.

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God,” Francis said in the documentary. “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.”

While Francis’ support of same-sex unions is only one part of the biographical film, the statement is a marked departure from previous papal positions. Penn Today spoke with Melissa Wilde and Anthea Butler of the School of Arts & Sciences to find out what this means for Catholics.

Melissa Wilde, professor of sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences and the author of “Birth Control Battles” and “Vatican II”

This is consistent with Pope Francis’ take for many, many years. It is a reflection of his focus on the social teachings of the Catholic Church in a much broader way than many American Catholics recognize. Whereas in America the debate gets entrenched in abortion and, to a lesser extent, homosexuality, Francis has always recognized that the social teachings of the church are much broader than that.

The key idea is that the Church must care for the people of God. As a result of taking that charge seriously, Pope Francis is focused on injustice in the myriad of forms that it takes today. As part of that, he recognizes that unequal protection under the law is unjust. He has repeatedly called for health care for all, for example. He’s spoken on climate change, immigrant rights, and the evils of capitalism. This was a matter-of-fact statement on his part. He’s just consistently on the side of the poor, caring for people, and eliminating injustice.

Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies in the School of Arts & Sciences

I’m a practicing Catholic, so let me tell you what this statement means: not a lot. This is not a surprise; if you’ve been following Pope Francis, this is who he’s been. This is what the pope advocated for in Argentina as a cardinal before becoming the pope. The civil union question was discussed in the 1990s and early 2000s for many denominations, until we got to the Obergefell decision. Francis isn’t saying something he hasn’t said before.

If you understand the Catholic Church, you understand that marriage is a sacrament. That’s too far a bridge. They’re not going to change for same sex marriage. Civil unions are a civil thing. Supporting civil unions is supporting something that the state is already doing. Marriage is sacred, and in the Catholic Church it is a union that is in the sight of God.