Pope Francis.

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican earlier this month.

AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

Nation & World

Pope may support same-sex unions, but that doesn’t mean the Vatican does

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Professor believes Francis sees road to lasting change as a long one

The disclosure this week of Pope Francis’ support of same-sex civil unions sent shockwaves through the Catholic Church and progressive and conservative circles alike. It came in a papal interview in “Francesco,” a documentary that premiered Wednesday, and represented a major break with Vatican teaching, leaving many wondering whether an official change might be coming soon. In the film Francis says, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.” The Gazette spoke with Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Parkman Professor of Divinity and professor of comparative theology, about the pope’s comments and what they mean for members of the Catholic LGBTQ community. 

Q&A

Francis X. Clooney

GAZETTE:  What was your reaction when you heard about the pope’s comments on same-sex unions?

CLOONEY: On the one hand, it’s not surprising at all, because Archbishop Bergoglio [now Pope Francis] struggled with the issue of formal marriage relationships when he was in Argentina and pointed to a compromise such as calling same-sex unions civil unions and not marriage. This debate is similar to what we went through in this country a decade or so ago. But I think Francis’ openness to same-sex unions is also more fundamentally representative of his instinct that human beings have a right to be together, a right to union, a right to family, and therefore, that it would be unjust to provide no way at all for people to live together as a couple. I think it’s his basic sense of human compassion and his openness to finding ways to help people to live the lives that they feel they must live.

On the other hand, you can’t imagine previous popes speaking in this fashion. That doesn’t mean that someone like John Paul was not a compassionate person, but they were so clearly linked to, focused on, church doctrine, and the preservation of marriage between a male and a female and, given their attitudes toward homosexuality, they simply wouldn’t speak in this fashion, whatever they may personally have felt. And I think what is new here is that Francis, as all the reports say, is in the non-authoritative context of a documentary — not sitting on the chair of Peter as pope making a proclamation ­— speaking his mind as probably most Catholics in the West would also speak their minds and say, “Well yes, some kind of way to allow people to live their lives happily and in peace is what matters.”

GAZETTE:  Does this change anything about the church’s overall doctrine?

CLOONEY: Probably not, because he hasn’t pushed it that far in terms of recognizing gay marriages. But implicitly, it’s undercutting the rhetoric that being gay is a grave disorder or that being gay and living out a gay commitment is something that God disapproves of. Francis is taking a positive attitude and therefore changing the climate, even if there are going to be Catholics who resist this greatly.

GAZETTE:  I know Bishop Thomas J. Tobin in Providence, R.I., has come out very strongly against this. Do you expect an even greater backlash from conservative and other voices in the church?

CLOONEY: Yes, but not as much as one might think. This news is based on a documentary, and it’s in keeping with things Francis has said previously. Conservative critics are not going to be surprised by this, even if they will be very annoyed by it. People who are against any compromise in this direction will see this as another sign that Francis has gone astray, that he is not adhering to church teaching. And they will add this to their list of complaints about him, even though he’s the pope and deserving of their respect. You may recall much earlier in his papacy, when people asked him about his thoughts on homosexuality, he said “Who am I to judge people in their lives?” This is Francis, and for many, this is a wonderful Francis; but for some, it’s the Francis they can’t abide, and they will continue to protest.

GAZETTE:  Can you see him pressing this forward to doctrinal change?

CLOONEY: Several years ago, when there was discussion with the pope and some of the bishops about divorced and remarried Catholics returning to Communion, Francis didn’t bite the bullet and declare that they’re welcome back to Communion if they’re in a stable second marriage. But he said that good priests, who know how to be pastoral, will know how to relate to people. It was as if to say: If a couple who are divorced and remarried comes to you, you’ll help them to find their way. My sense is that Francis is not the man as pope, particularly going on 10 years into his papacy, to be making declarations that push the church where it’s not ready to go. But rather, again, he is giving a green light, really, to priests and others involved in counseling couples to say we have to find ways to welcome Catholics as they are: Be pastoral; be like Jesus. And I think this opens the door, even though it will be controversial in some circles, to saying couples who are in a same-sex marriage are members of the parish and welcome in Catholic worshipping communities. Of course, in some dioceses, such couples will not be welcome to Communion. There will be differences in response and pastoral practice. So I think what is at stake is a kind of incremental pastoral disposition, whereby things will change, as they always have, only slowly. The pope is saying things that other popes never would have said previously. But I don’t see Francis being in the position to make any kind of daring pronouncement in the years to come about gay marriage. I wouldn’t anticipate that coming.

Frank Clooney.

"People who are against any compromise in this direction will see this as another sign that Francis has gone astray, that he is not adhering to church teaching. And they will add this to their list of complaints about him," says Professor Francis Clooney.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard file photo

GAZETTE:  Does this kind of comment potentially set the stage for another Vatican council?

CLOONEY: Well, there have certainly been calls for a coming Vatican III. I think there’s a sense that some 50 or 60 years after the last council, which opened things up, there’s a need to consolidate and catch up to where things are in the world around us now. How much has changed since 1965! Some, who still regret the way Vatican II was implemented, will also want to have a Vatican III, if not turn back the clock, rather to tighten things up under a more conservative pope. In a sense it’s like calling a constitutional convention in this country: Liberals and conservatives would see such a convention as to their advantage. But I think all this depends first of all on how long Francis is pope. He’s not said he’s going to retire, but he seems to be the kind of man who would be sensible enough to say, “If I can’t do the job, I will retire,” even if he hasn’t said that yet. So then it will also depend on who the next pope would be.

GAZETTE:  Do you have a sense of whether the church is on a more liberal trajectory in terms of selecting popes?

CLOONEY: Sometimes there’s this sense that if you’ve gone from Benedict on the more conservative side to Francis on the more liberal side, it could be that the cardinals look around and want a shift back a little the other way. And therefore, the next pope would be less likely to make any bold gestures. But again, in 1957 or 1958, nobody expected John XXIII, who was put in as an older caretaker pope, would suddenly call Vatican II. This knocked many cardinals off their seats, so to speak. It could be that such surprising things may happen fairly quickly.

All of this is analogous to how change happens in this country with Congress and the Supreme Court making decisions, sometimes behind popular opinion, sometimes against it. But remember that Francis is in a sense a pastoral incrementalist. He believes that you’ve got to change the way we Catholics, clergy, bishops, all of us think about human decency, our responsibility to members of the church, compassion, helping people in trouble. If you change people’s minds and hearts, then the church will continue to grow in new ways. Whereas if you put in something legally that is too far ahead of where people are, it could be counterproductive.

GAZETTE:  Can you talk a bit about the complexity of being the pope for a global community?

CLOONEY: It’s one thing were Pope Francis the pope only of North America and Western Europe. But everything he says will be read by Catholics in South America, which is still very Catholic in many ways, and also by Catholics in more conservative Catholic communities in Africa and Asia. So going incrementally and pastorally step by step is probably Francis’s instinct, because he knows either he would infuriate Catholics in the West by not going fast enough, or anger Catholics in other parts of the world, who would say, “This is far too fast. This is out of keeping where our culture is.” In certain African countries, homosexuality is still, I think, illegal and can be punished. So saying something about same-sex marriages will be heard in one way in certain countries in Africa, and very differently in New York or Boston or London, where the response will be quite different. I think Francis has to be looking in both directions. And his basic sense is: Change our hearts, how we think as priests and bishops, and so on, and then that will be an infusion of the whole church with a new attitude slowly arriving.

GAZETTE:  Could you see Pope Francis making other kinds of comments about women priests or priests being able to marry going forward?

CLOONEY: Many Catholics have been hoping, with each pope for the past 50 years or so, that the pope would say something to change the dynamic on married priests and women priests, but it hasn’t happened. There has been the issue of women deacons serving in ordained ministry — there’s evidence about women deacons in the early church. But Francis, thus far into his papacy, hasn’t really changed church policy even on that. But with his “who am I to judge” comments, Francis was showing that the church is like a Red Cross station on the battlefield of life, there to help people and not to sit in an ivory tower casting judgments on people. In this way he has set a tone, which is quite clear, about wanting to have an inclusive church, wanting to have a church where people are not left out because some particularities about themselves, their self-identity.

But he doesn’t seem to be the one, as more liberal Catholics would want, to say, “Let’s just ordain women deacons, period. Let’s just do it.” I think as pope, he in theory at least has the power to do that, just as Pope John Paul claimed the power for himself to stop entirely the discussion about the ordination of women, saying it’s not even to be discussed in the church anymore, period. But that didn’t work, it didn’t stop discussion. Francis could say something like that, speaking very firmly on marriage or ordination. But again, would it be wise?

You think of Supreme Court decisions in this country like Roe v. Wade, and can ask whether decisions from above are the best way to change how people think about these issues. I think Francis feels the change has to come more from leaders talking to the people, listening to the people, so that ideas and sentiments seep upward through the church, not just come down from above. So I don’t think he’s going to say anything dramatic about women in the church or married priests in the church. Remember that the bishops of the Amazon region had their annual meeting just a year ago. In their document they called for married priests, arguing that they simply didn’t have enough priests, and that people have a right to Mass and the sacraments, and that the only way to do that is to ordain married men. Francis had the prerogative of issuing the final statement, and he left out reference to that request. He didn’t condemn them and say it’s impossible, but he just didn’t follow up on it. And I don’t see evidence that he’s going to suddenly start acting more boldly at this point on issues such as marriage. A positive attitude toward civil unions may well be as far as he goes.

In terms of his recent comments, people who are in gay unions or gay marriages should therefore not be expecting that suddenly everything is going to be all right. But given Francis’ view of how things change, simply that he’s willing to say these things and air new ideas again and again is a big step forward. It’s not an authoritative pronouncement from Vatican City, per se. But it’s the slow change that moves things forward in a healthy way.

Interview was gently edited for clarity and length.