Pope Francis is again making headlines for controversial comments, this time concerning “civil unions” between same-sex couples. But before getting into what he said, it is worth clarifying the weight the pope’s comments hold with regard to official Catholic teaching.
He is, after all, a man of many titles, and those titles muddy the waters of knowing exactly how to interpret and understand his words when he speaks. No other person on the planet claims the title of Vicar of Christ, who purportedly speaks on Christ’s behalf and through whom Christ’s revelation to the church is ongoing. No other person claims to be the supreme pontiff of the universal church.
More than that, the pope also serves as the sovereign of the state of Vatican City. In other words, Catholics hold that the pope is both head of the church, who speaks on behalf of Christ himself, and head of a state, in this case Vatican City.
Add to his array of titles the doctrine of infallibility, which became Catholic Church dogma during the first Vatican Council (1869–1870), and things get particularly interesting. Needless to say, when the pope speaks, people listen.
The controversial comments were unveiled in October during the Rome Film Festival, which took place at the auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome, Italy.
During the festival, a documentary on Pope Francis titled Francesco debuted, in which the pope expresses his support for same-sex civil unions. Jason Horowitz, reporting for the New York Times, quotes the pope’s precise words from the documentary as, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they [same-sex couples] are legally covered.”
Elsewhere in the documentary, Pope Francis says, “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.” While there is some controversy concerning when exactly Pope Francis made these comments, there is no doubt that they came during his papacy.
Furthermore, they are consistent with his stance on this matter that he has made clear so far throughout his papacy. During his first year as pontifex maximus (2013), while returning to Rome from Brazil aboard an Alitalia flight, the pope was asked by journalists about gay priests. Francis famously replied, “If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person?”
One Happy Family?
The timing of these comments is also notable. Although they were made some time ago, and just recently appeared in the film, it is interesting that we are hearing about them now, in the immediate wake of Pope Francis’s third encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti. “Letter” is perhaps not the best way to describe the pope’s encyclical, as it contains more than 42,000 words. It is more of a book than a letter.
In Fratelli Tutti (“All Brothers”), Francis argues that a common bond unites all of humanity and creates a brotherhood among us as children of God. Our brotherhood, then, is rooted in our humanity, not in the spiritual inheritance we receive when we place our faith and hope in the risen Christ.
According to the letter, if there is to be hope for peace in this world, it must come on the basis of our shared humanity, not on the basis of faith in Christ Jesus. Paragraph 281 states,
A journey of peace is possible between religions. Its point of departure must be God’s way of seeing things. “God does not see with his eyes; God sees with his heart. And God’s love is the same for everyone, regardless of religion. Even if they are atheists, his love is the same. When the last day comes, and there is sufficient light to see things as they really are, we are going to find ourselves quite surprised.”
We all are brothers, according to the pope. And if we all are brothers, how can one brother stand in judgment over another? We must respect all walks of life and convictions of all kinds.
The Church esteems the ways in which God works in other religions, and “rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for their manner of life and conduct, their precepts and doctrines which . . . often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.” (Paragraph 277)
God’s love is the same for everyone, he says, and if that is true, who are we to judge others simply because they do not believe as we do or share our same convictions? That is the message of Fratelli Tutti. Following this line of thought, and applying it to the discussion at hand, who is the Church to judge same-sex couples? Why should the Church stand in the way of their desires?
In order to promulgate this message, however, the specifics of the biblical gospel must be ignored. This is exactly what we find in Fratelli Tutti. In a document of more than 42,000 words, the word salvation does not appear once. The message of the cross and redemption in the risen Christ are totally absent. Repentance and judgment have no place in Francis’s theology, for that would require standing in judgment over others and their religious convictions. It is in this context and through this lens that we must interpret Pope Francis’s comments concerning civil unions between same-sex couples.
Problem of the Papacy
Here is where the problems of the magisterium emerge. The pope’s seemingly innocuous comments left the Church scrambling to clarify his remarks and the Catholic faithful wondering if the Church was changing its long-held stances on marriage and homosexuality. “The clarifications explain that the pope’s comments do not pertain to Catholic doctrine regarding the nature of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, but to provisions of civil law,” states the Catholic News Agency.
Officially speaking, the pope’s words mean nothing for the Church. Only when he speaks ex cathedra (from the seat of Peter) are the Pope’s words infallible and binding on the Church. This is most notable during church councils, of which there have been only 21 in the long history of the Catholic Church.
Symbolically speaking, however, the Pope’s words are extremely significant. Any time the pope speaks, the Catholic faithful listen and take note. After all, they consider him to be the Vicar of Christ, the chosen one to lead God’s church. He is thought by millions to be the supreme pontiff of the universal church. Ex cathedra or not, his every word carries significant weight.
Francis DeBernardo, who is executive director of New Ways Ministry, an organization for LGBT Catholics, underscores this when he says, “A pope sets the tone for the church, and what he is doing is signaling to bishops and church leaders that a welcome for gay and lesbian couples has to go forward.” James Martin, a Jesuit priest (Francis is also a Jesuit), affirms DeBernardo’s judgment when he says, “It’s going to be harder for bishops to say that same-sex civil unions are a threat against marriage. . . . This is unmistakable support.”
Very Progressive Revelation
This is why the Protestant Reformers rejected the notion of a Vicar of Christ. God has spoken to us once and for all by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and who now sits “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:1–4). God’s word, given to us once and for all time, is sufficient. Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone as the ultimate authority) was the rightful mantra of the Reformers and is a timeless truth for the church.
God’s truths continue to be revealed through his word, but he does not continue to reveal new truths. His word is sufficient, and we must not add to it (Revelation 22:18–19). The validity of a church leader’s words and teachings must be measured in light of Scripture alone as the highest authority. If they are contrary to God’s word, they must be rejected. Period.
In Roman Catholicism, however, revelation is ongoing and is revealed through the head bishop, the Vicar of Christ, so there is no timeless truth by which all truths can be measured. Contrary to the teachings of Scripture, new revelation is added to God’s word.
“God does not see with his eyes; God sees with his heart. And God’s love is the same for everyone, regardless of religion. Even if they are atheists, his love is the same” (Fratelli Tutti, paragraph 182). These are the words of Pope Francis, the alleged Vicar of Christ. But do they reflect the teachings of Scripture and of Christ himself? Was it not Christ who declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?
It may not be a popular message for many, but it is the word of God, and it must be maintained and upheld, for it is the hope of our salvation.