Pope Francis’s Words on Civil Unions Distorted by Editing

Pope Francis’s Words on Civil Unions Distorted by Editing October 22, 2020

On October 21, 2020, I woke up to find every news source in the world claiming Pope Francis approved civil unions. Then, when I looked at the video, I see a bunch of statements of the Pope being switched together to give a certain impression. Putting the statements together like that contradicts the Pope’s words on other occasions. Pope Francis seems to approve of civil unions in place of “gay marriages” but many might listen to the segment in the documentary and think he approves of them in an absolute way. These two are very different manners of looking at civil unions.

Update: the full transcript makes it clear that Francis “does” not just “seems to” approve of civil unions in place of “gay marriages.”

Update 2: There was an official clarification along the lines of what I said above. The English version comes from the Papal Nuncio to the USA. I posted it with a slight commentary.

The Video

Here’s the segment of the documentary in question:

He starts with a statement like he has said before about parents treating their children with dignity even if their sexual attraction is not what the parents wanted:

Homosexuals have a right to part of a 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.

As we will see below, these three sentences are from the same answer to an interviewer but each is separate from the others in the original text. Then, it what appears to be replying to a different question, he states:

What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.

That latter part is what obviously got a huge reaction.

In this piece, I intend to show two points from prior statements. First, Pope Francis was clearly speaking about parents and their homosexual children in part A. He was not claiming homosexual couples make a “family.” Second, Pope Francis has approved civil unions in place of “gay marriage,” not in an absolute sense. I will conclude with the most common objection.

Pope Francis in Prato, Italy in 2015
Pope Francis in Prato, Italy in 2015 (CC BY-SA 4.0 Zebra48bo)

Parents Should Treat Gay Children with Charity

Francis has repeatedly reminded parents, siblings and extended family not to cast off or abandon children because of their sexual attraction. He has noted this in December 2014, August 2018, September 2018, March 2019, and September 2020. His prior words are close to the first part above. There are likely even more cases as these were just the ones that came up easily.

Where Peter Is noted that the lines of the Pope here were edited together from a longer statement. Each of the three sentences of this part is a separate quotation over the course of several paragraphs. The larger context makes it clear that here he is talking about “people with homosexual orientation” and how their family should not reject them. It’s kind of funny how in this larger quote – between two lines cited in the documentary – he is talking about media taking his words out of context, which is exactly what is happening here.

Gay Unions Do Not Make a Family

Pope Francis has also clearly stated several times that a gay couple sharing a bed do not make a family and that a family is only a mom, dad, children, and sometimes more extended family. This makes it very clear that the first part quoted from Francis above is not about “gay families.” I summarized some below to avoid this being too long, but I left links to fuller words each time.

As a Cardinal in 2010, responding to a proposal for gay marriage in Argentina, Card. Bergoglio wrote: “In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family…At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children… At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”

The same year, he did a book interview where he said, “same-sex marriage” is an “anti-value and an anthropological regression.”

In June 2014, Francis told participants in Rome’s diocesan conference: “A man and woman choose to build a family because God calls them after having them experience the beauty of love.” He also noted how the complementarity of the sexes helps marriage.

In November 2014, he stated that only marriages make a family to a conference called “Humanum: The Complementarity of Man and Woman”: “Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s growth and emotional development.” He also noted: “The family is an anthropological fact, and consequently a social, cultural fact, etc.”

In February 2015 when Slovakia had an upcoming referendum on gay marriage that the Church was fighting, Francis encouraged the Slovak church “to continue their efforts in defense of the family, the vital cell of society.” The same year, a week before a similar referendum in Slovenia, Pope Francis stated, “I wish to encourage all Slovenians, especially those in public capacity, to preserve the family as the basic unit of society.”

In early 2016, he told the Roman Rota (canon law tribunal): “There can be no confusion between the family as willed by God, and every other type of union.”

His joint declaration with Patriarch Krill of the Russian Orthodox Church (February 2016) states: “The family is based on marriage, an act of freely given and faithful love between a man and a woman.”

In Amoris Laetitia (251, April 2016), Pope Francis stated: “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

On a plane later in 2016, he reaffirmed: “When speaking of marriage as the union of man and woman as God made it, as an image of God and man and woman, the image of God is not man, it is man with the woman together, they are one flesh when they join in marriage: this is the truth.”

In 2018, Francis said to a group working for families in Italy:

The family, which you foster in various ways, is at the centre of God’s plan, as the entire history of salvation shows… The complementarity and the love between man and woman make them co-operators of the Creator, who entrusts them with the task of bringing new creatures to life, taking to heart their growth and education.

At the same meeting, he added unscripted at the end: “It is painful to say this today: people speak of varied families, of various kinds of family” but “the family [as] man and woman in the image of God is the only one.” To remove any doubts, a major LGBT publication summarized: “The pope’s definition of a family excludes same-sex couples.”

Francis Supported Civil Unions Instead of “Gay Marriage”

On a few occasions before Francis has hinted at or supported civil unions. These have never been presented as the ideal solution but as something better than a nation approving “gay marriage.” As noted in the previous section “gay marriage” is impossible as marriage and family clearly belong only to monogamous opposite-sex couples.

In 2010, “gay marriage” was proposed in Argentina. Card. Bergoglio spoke out clearly against “gay marriage” as can be seen above. However, civil unions were already approved, and he never spoke out against them: sources said he quietly supported them as a preferred option over “gay marriage.”

In a 2014 interview, the Pope expressed openness to civil marriages:

Marriage is between a man and a woman. Secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of cohabitation, pushed by the demand to regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring health care. It is about pacts of cohabitating of various natures, of which I wouldn’t know how to list the different ways. One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.

The next day, the Vatican clarified:

Journalists have asked if the Pope was referring specifically to gay civil unions in the above response. The Pope did not choose to enter into debates about the delicate matter of gay civil unions. In his response to the interviewer, he emphasized the natural characteristic of marriage between one man and one woman.

However, this still leaves open this possibility when the practically available options are “gay marriage” or civil unions as may be the case in many countries today.

In 2017, Francis gave a book-length interview where he said:

Marriage between people of the same sex? “Marriage” is a historical word. Always in humanity, and not only within the Church, it’s between a man and a woman… we cannot change that. This is the nature of things. This is how they are. Let’s call them “civil unions.” Let’s not play with the truth. It’s true that behind it there is a gender ideology… But let’s say things as they are: Marriage is between a man and a woman. This is the precise term. Let’s call unions between the same sex “civil unions.”

From this variety of sources, it seems clear that Francis was likely already for allowing civil unions as an alternative to “gay marriage” not as something good in itself. Civil unions are much like an abortion bill making it legal before 12 weeks but illegal after. If abortion is currently fully illegal, this is a bad bill, but if abortion is currently fully legal restricting it is a good bill. Pope Francis seems to see civil unions for homosexual couples in a similar light: not the ideal but preferable to “gay marriage.” I think this is a reasonable prudential judgment within Catholic teaching.

I found the transcript and video of the interview in 2019 that the documentary clips are taken from. Both versions of the interview lack a reference to civil unions for homosexuals. It seems most likely it was cut after about 1:00:08. (Thanks to a friend on Twitter for pointing me to the cut.) At this point he is critiquing the problems with “gay marriage,” then there is a cut almost mid-sentence to another topic. I suspect someone asked then that this clip be removed to avoid being taking out of context, but the documentary filmmakers found the unedited video and then took this line out of context. The exact words before the cut are: “I always defended the doctrine, right? Curiously, in the ‘gay marriage’ law, I always defended [doctrine]: ‘gay marriage’ is incongruous.” If the quote above (“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”) came right after or soon after that – especially if proceeded by a phrase like “instead” – it is clear the goal is civil unions instead of “gay marriage.”

Update: the above paragraph was written as speculation of where the quote likely originated. It was later proven accurate.

The Question of the 2003 CDF Document

In 2003, Card. Ratzinger wrote a document on civil unions for homosexuals. It affirmed forcefully that we should not promote them when neither they nor “gay marriage” exists in a place:

When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.

The next paragraph notes what should happen once civil union laws are in place:

If it is not possible to repeal such a law completely, the Catholic politician, recalling the indications contained in the Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, “could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.” … It is a question of the legitimate and dutiful attempt to obtain at least the partial repeal of an unjust law when its total abrogation is not possible at the moment.

The document makes no direct mention of “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage.” At the time this document was produced only the Netherlands had same-sex marriage while several other countries or regions granted civil partnerships. Many other countries were looking at proposals along these two lines.

Nonetheless, we are now in a situation where “gay marriage” is accepted almost universally in the developed world. Now, moving from “gay marriage” to only a civil union would likely qualify as “lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.”

Some may read Ratzinger differently: saying he and Francis disagree. I can see that as a possible reading. However, I think there is a bit of room for prudence here. And the prudential judgment of the Church changing over 17 years seems unsurprising. Some, like Francis appears to, may argue that it’s worth moving from “gay marriage” to civil unions with similar rights because it protects the term marriage. Others may judge that the danger of essentially equating them even if linguistically different is too great, and they would oppose a civil union as forcefully as a “gay marriage.” I don’t think either of these groups is contrary to the Catholic faith and I would admit there can disagreement here as it is in the realm of prudential judgment.

Francis has repeatedly stated that we should prefer married couples when looking at adoption. (It is in several sources cited above, but this is already getting too long.) He has done this as he says a child has a right to grow up with both a mother and a father. I think that we should all fight for adoption laws to favor one-man-one-woman marriages over any other legal arrangement whatever it is called. Making these “civil unions” might help clarify things: for example, adoption laws might apply unequally to marriages and civil unions while laws for things like taxation and hospital visitation are equal.

US Bishops

Several US bishops have commented along a similar line to what I have said above.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said, “As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he proposed civil union legislation as an alternate to so-called ‘gay marriage,’ which pretends that same sex unions are equivalent to the conjugal union of a man and woman (generative of children) in the permanent and exclusive relationship of marriage.”

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh noted, “His comments in no way signal a departure from the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning marriage or homosexuality.  It speaks, rather, of a pastoral approach to these issues.” The Archdiocese of Omaha also noted that no change in teaching should be implied: “It is worth noting that the pope does not use secular documentaries to offer definitive teaching on matters of faith and morals.”

Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee released a statement, saying in part: “Pope Francis rightly differentiates between Catholic marriage and other relationships recognized by civil or state authorities. The Church clearly teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman, and that it is life-long and life-giving.”


The Church teaching remains clear that the only type of marriage and family that is legitimate is monogamous heterosexuals. In fact, this is based on natural law so as long as we are human persons, this is the only definition of marriage that works.

As Catholics, living in a culture that promotes other forms of family, there is legitimate disagreement about the law around civil unions for non-marriage relationships. When the choices are civil unions or “gay marriage,” Catholics can argue it is worth putting in the effort for civil unions or fighting the all-or-nothing battle.

Civil unions are often best when not based on romance. Citing Robert P. George, Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis proposed a kind of non-romantic civil union back in 2009. They note: “Their purpose would be to protect adult domestic partners who have pledged themselves to a mutually binding relationship of care. What (if anything) goes on in the bedroom would have nothing to do with these unions’ goals or, thus, eligibility requirements.”

Pope Francis takes one side as his personal prudential judgment. Francis made this opinion clear in a secular interview, not a formal teaching so it should be respected and considered but has little binding force.

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Update: Post by a Papal Confidant

On October 23, Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, who is close to the Pope wrote a Facebook post explaining what Francis said. Much of what he said is the same as above but two notes are worth adding.

  1. He states that to him and Francis “civil unions” or “convivencia civil” laws are the same. This makes translating “convivencia civil” as “civil coexistence” far less likely to be accurate. I had mentioned a possible translation issue but removed it as a highly unlikely issue. The Argentine law uses “uniones convivenciales” (literally “cohabitation unions”) as the legal term. I think this issue was due to cohabitation and civil union being separate laws in some other Spanish-speaking countries.
  2. He notes that such civil unions “do not in themselves imply sexual relations.” Argentine law seems to indicate similarly. The first paragraph on a government website about them states: “It is the procedure by which the State recognizes and ensures the mutual rights and obligations of two people, regardless of their sex or sexual orientation.” As far as the relationship, the requirement is cohabitating exclusively for two years or having a child together: there is no indication of what goes on in the bedroom in the law. (Beyond the fact you can get a “union convivencial” living together shorter if you have a child together.) Thus, I think it is reasonable to assume Francis either meant some kind of civil union in general (not specifying) or a civil union along the lines of Argentine law (which generally matches Ryan T. Anderson’s proposal above), not specifically a type of civil union that implies homosexual sexual relations.

Update 2: Full Transcript

On October 24, the full transcript was released. This confirms everything above.

Update 3: Official Clarification

There was an official clarification along the lines of what I said above. The English version comes from the Papal Nuncio to the USA. I posted it with a slight commentary.

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