October 21, 2020 at 12:52 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Pope Francis calls for civil unions for same-sex couples
Pope Francis, gay news, Washington Blade
Pope Francis (Foto por Zebra48bo vía Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Francis has publicly endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples.

The Catholic News Agency reported Francis made the comments in “Francesco,” a documentary about his life that debuted at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday.

“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family,” he said. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”

“What we have to create is a civil union law,” added Francis. “That way they are legally covered.”

Francis’ reported comments are the latest indication the Vatican’s tone towards LGBTQ-specific issues has softened since he assumed the papacy in 2013. The documentary’s release also comes against the backdrop of the upcoming vote in the U.S. Senate on whether to confirm the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic judge who has faced questions over her positions on marriage equality and other LGBTQ rights issues, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Francis — who vehemently opposed a marriage equality bill in his native Argentina before then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed it into law in 2020 — a few months after he became pope said gay men and lesbians should not be judged or marginalized.

The pontiff in 2016 said the Roman Catholic Church should “ask forgiveness” from gay people over the way it has treated them. Francis last fall compared politicians who use hate speech against LGBTQ people and other minority groups to Adolf Hitler. The Vatican in April gave money to a group of transgender sex workers in Italy who were struggling to survive during the coronavirus pandemic.

Activists with whom the Washington Blade has previously spoken say church teachings on homosexuality and gender identity remains unchanged despite these overtures. Many of them on Wednesday nevertheless welcomed Francis’ comments on civil unions.

“Today, Pope Francis took a significant step for inclusion and acceptance in the Catholic Church by embracing unions for same-sex couples and affirming that LGBTQ Catholics are a part of their religious family,” said Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David in a statement.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry, said his organization that ministers to LGBTQ Catholics “gratefully welcomes Pope Francis’ latest support for civil unions for same-gender couples.”

“It is an historic moment when the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, long seen as a persecutor of LGBTQ people, moves in such a supportive direction for lesbian/gay couples and their families,” said DeBernardo in a statement. “It signals that the church is continuing to dvelop more positively its approach to LGBTQ issues.”

Esteban Paulón is an activist in Argentina who has sharply criticized Francis over LGBTQ issues.

Paulón on Wednesday told the Blade that Francis “in private expressed his support” for civil unions for same-sex couples during the marriage equality debate in Argentina. Paulón added Francis’ comments in the documentary represent “an advance above all else because we are coming from a context in which the church has had a lamentable role in promoting hatred, discrimination, support for totalitarian regimes around the world that now penalize homosexuality.”

“The fact that the pope is able to make this declaration as a principle figure of the church is very important,” he said.

Naomi Fontanos, executive director of Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas, an LGBTQ advocacy group in the Philippines, in a Facebook post notes the Vatican in 2019 “rejected the idea of gender identity, saying it’s a threat to the family and denies the natural differences between women and men.” Fontanos, like Paulón, also pointed out Francis’ comments on civil unions in Argentina.

“[I] sincerely want to believe Pope Francis has a heart for the LGBTQI community, but there are claims he’s a ‘populist’ and will say things to attract people to the church,” wrote Fontanos in her post. “His latest pronouncement supporting civil unions is a rehashed stance as cardinal in Argentina. He supports civil union (sic) as it isn’t marriage equality and preserves heterosexual marriage. He’s been kind to gay and lesbian people, but less so to trans people.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, who was born in Ireland, tweeted in response to Francis’ comments that “time will tell, but I believe that Pope Francis’ support for same-sex unions will ultimately have a profound impact on how gays and lesbians are treated around the world.”

“The pope’s views, heard by the 1 billion Catholics worldwide, have incredible power,” added Power.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a group of LGBTQ Catholics, on Wednesday during a telephone interview with the Blade said “there are a lot of unknowns” about Francis’ statements and whether the Vatican will publicly comment on them. Duddy-Burke also questioned what, if any, impact they will have on church teachings about homosexuality and gender identity.

“If this is a statement that is grounded in the current realities of marriage equality being more and more seen as a fundamental human right and it is allowed to stand on its face by the Vatican, I think that’s a global game changer really, particular for folks in areas of the world that have few or no legal protections for LGBTQI people and where folks are particularly vulnerable to criminalization or violence or social marginalization,” Duddy-Burke told the Blade.

“If the Vatican gets on board with the human rights movement towards equality for LGBTQI people, we’re talking about a very different world than the one in which we’ve lived,” she added.

The Blade has reached out to the Archdiocese of Washington and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for comment.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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