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The National Catholic Bioethics Center
Pope Francis Affirms Natural Marriage, Not Same-Sex Civil Unions
Wednesday, March 12, 2014 4:56:00 PM
© 2020 by The National Catholic Bioethics Center

Pope Francis Affirms Natural Marriage, Not Same-Sex Civil Unions

March 12, 2014


     Much ado again has been made about the words of Pope Francis, this time on the subject of same-sex civil unions. In anticipation of the one-year anniversary of the election of Pope Francis on March 13th, the Italian national newspaper Corriere della Sera published an interview with the Pope on March 5th.

     That same day, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor Daniel Burke reported that “Pope Francis reaffirmed the Catholic Church's opposition to gay marriage . . . but suggested . . . that it could support some types of civil unions.” Catholic News Service (CNS) correspondent Francis X. Rocca claimed that “Pope Francis suggested the Catholic Church could tolerate some types of nonmarital civil unions as a practical measure to guarantee property rights and health care.” Joshua Norman of CBS Newsparaphrased theology professor Massimo Faggioli’s thoughts: “The most important part of the Pope's Wednesday interview is the part where he tried to distance himself from the Catholic Church's past views on ‘non-negotiable values.’” On March 10th, David Gibson of Religion News Service, referencing the CNS story, stated “[i]t was the first time a pope had ever held out the possibility of the church accepting some legal arrangement for same-sex couples.”

     The impression is that the Pope has indicated a tentative acceptance or even support for same-sex civil unions as an alternative to same-sex marriage. Yet the Pope did not once mention same-sex couples.

     Pope Francis did explicitly mention marriage, however, in the first statement of his reply to the question about civil unions: “Marriage is between one man and one woman.” That he replied with this statement before entertaining any concept of civil unions speaks volumes. The rest of his response makes no direct reference to same-sex couples, indicates no tentative acceptance or tolerance of any form of civil union, and most definitely does not evince support for same-sex civil unions as an alternative to same-sex marriage, which is distinctly ruled out by his affirmation of marriage as between one man and one woman.

     Sources as varied as Cardinal Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York on NBC News, Joshua Bowman with, Elizabeth Dias with Time, and Tyler Lopez with Slate acknowledge that the Pope has not said anything that implies support for gay marriage or for civil unions for same-sex couples. Elise Harris with Catholic News Agency has reported a clarification on the interview by Father Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., a priest connected with the Vatican press office: “Addressing questions from some journalists who have asked whether or not the comments were made in reference to gay civil unions, the priest emphasized that ‘The Pope did not choose to enter into debates about the delicate matter of gay civil unions. . . . Pope Francis spoke in very general terms, and did not specifically refer to same-sex marriage as a civil union.’” Most importantly, notes Father Rosica, “We should not try to read more into the Pope’s words than what has been stated in very general terms.”

     So what exactly was stated by the Pope? What follows is the complete question and answer exchange from the interview (my translation from the Italian):


Q: Many countries regulate civil unions. Is this a path that the Church can take? If so, up to what point?


A: Marriage is between one man and one woman. Secular nations want to justify civil unions in order to regulate various shared living situations [situazioni di convivenza], driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, such as ensuring health care. These are shared living agreements [patti di convivenza] of various sorts, with different forms that I wouldn’t know well enough to list. The different cases need to be seen and assessed in their variety.


     The Pope’s reply is consonant with the tradition of Church teaching on marriage. It describes why so-called civil unions of “various” sorts are being established in different countries, and implies that there is nothing which inherently links the legal concept of “civil union” with same-sex couples and alternatives to same-sex marriage—indeed, the Pope never mentions those terms. A civil union, in his words, is a “shared living agreement” in order “to regulate economic aspects among persons, such as ensuring health care.” This concept would apply equally to an elderly parent living with a caretaker, a brother and sister living together, or even to close friends renting together or co-owning a home. It need not imply any romantic or sexual relationship.

     The Italian term convivenza can and has been translated as “cohabitation,” which in English often has connotations involving romantic, nonmarital relationships; however, convivenza is used more often than its English literal equivalent to simply indicate “living together,” whether as a family of parents and siblings in daily life (convivenza quotidiana), as apartment roommates, as extended and multi-generational families living under the same roof, or as members of society more broadly (convivenza sociale). It can even be used to generally reference all relationships and social interactions as a human family (convivenza umana).

     It would be naïve to suggest that Pope Francis was unaware of the intended reference to same-sex couples in the term “civil union.” Yet he deliberately points to shared living agreements “of various sorts, with different forms I wouldn’t know well enough to list.” If he meant to address only the kind of civil union that is proposed as an alternative to same-sex marriage, which is the well-known elephant in the room, it would have been a one-item list.

     As it stands, he concludes that ”[t]he different cases need to be seen and assessed in their variety.” In other words, shared living agreements between an elderly parent and caretaker child might be seen and assessed as morally licit; shared living agreements between same-sex couples that confer a status resembling that of marriage might be seen and assessed morally illicit. The legal details and context of each type of agreement will clearly impact the outcome of the moral assessment.

     In sum, the Pope did not commit himself one way or the other on any particular type of legal arrangement that might regulate shared living, but he indisputably reaffirmed the natural moral law and the Church’s unchanging teaching on marriage: “Marriage is between one man and one woman.”


John A. Di Camillo, Be.L.