By Michael Krom, professor of philosophy
Last month’s premiere of “Francesco,” a documentary on Pope Francis, unleashed yet another controversy regarding the Holy Father’s position on homosexuality. Such events have all but defined his pontificate: an off-the-cuff statement is made public, controversy over whether he is signaling a change in Church teaching ensues, the Vatican issues a clarification settling nothing and the debate rages on. Thus, the response to the documentary follows a familiar script, but the question remains as to whether or not Pope Francis has indeed said something new.
The documentary in question shows Pope Francis saying, “What we have to create is a civil union law [for same-sex couples]. That way they are legally covered.” Does such a statement signal a change in Church teaching?
On multiples occasions, Pope Francis has indicated his agreement with Church teaching that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” (CCC [Catechism of the Catholic Church] 2357) and that those with same-sex attraction are called to chastity. For example, in his General Audience of April 15, 2015, he reiterated that God made male and female for one another, and that “so-called gender theory” takes a step backwards in seeking “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.” On January 15, 2015, speaking about a same-sex marriage referendum in the Philippines, he warned, “Beware of the new ideological colonization that tries to destroy the family.” While on March 31, 2019 he did say that same sex attraction is not a sin, he was merely distinguishing between the inclination itself (which is intrinsically disordered) and homosexual acts (which are sinful). Such nuanced distinctions do not easily translate to news reports and social media, so it is understandable that they would be lost in translation.
While Pope Francis has never brought into question the Church’s teachings regarding homosexuality or marriage, his comments in the documentary do appear to go against previous statements issued by the Vatican. On June 3, 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) stated in no uncertain terms that “One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of . . . laws [recognizing same-sex unions] and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application.” This document goes on to argue that Catholic politicians must not vote for a law that would allow for same-sex unions; in places where the law recognizes such unions, they must work to limit their reach and eventually abolish them.
With this context in mind, let us consider two important points here: 1) the private comments of a Pope in an interview do not constitute official Church teaching; 2) one must distinguish between moral teaching and prudential application.
Regarding the first point, papal infallibility is only exercised when the Holy Father speaks “ex cathedra” [from the chair, or, by extension, teaching office]. As the Vatican II document “Lumen Gentium” (LG) puts it: “the Roman Pontiff . . . enjoys [infallibility] in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful . . . by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.” This clearly does not apply to an informal statement in a homily, speech or interview. If one were to ask, then, what the Church teaches on same-sex civil unions, one should refer to the aforementioned CDF document, the most recent official document approved by a Pope (John Paul II).
That being said, LG also points out that Catholics must give “religious submission of mind and will . . . to the authentic magisterium [teaching] of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.” Thus, even in those cases where the Holy Father is not defining dogma, one must adhere to his judgments. Yet LG clarifies that “His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” Given that the Holy Father has not made efforts to make his judgment on this issue known in an official document, much less stated it in homilies or formal speeches, in the interview he is merely stating his private, prudential judgment and does not intend to bind Catholics to his views.
Secondly, moral teachings of the Church bind in conscience, but determining how to apply them in political communities is a matter of prudential determination. While some moral teachings are so central to law that they must always be enforced, others require careful consideration regarding how applying them would affect the common good. For example, no government can tolerate the killing of innocent people, and thus abortion must always and everywhere be banned. On the other hand, while sexual acts outside of marriage are contrary to moral law, one must reach a prudential judgment in each situation to determine the best civil laws and policies to discourage them. The Holy Father evidently sees same-sex unions as the best prudential way to protect the sanctity of marriage as well as allow for those in irregular relationship to enjoy legal immunities and rights (though, to be clear, he denies that same-sex couples have a right to adopt children). Given that the CDF has articulated reasons against this prudential judgment, it would be incumbent upon the Holy Father to justify his own position, or at least provide examples of how his views apply to policies in specific legal contexts.
In short, the Holy Father’s comments should be read in continuity with the Church’s teaching regarding the immorality of homosexual acts, and, while his own private opinion regarding same-sex unions is to be respected, the 2003 CDF document still presents the clearest articulation of the consequences of Church teaching for civil law.