“Homosexual people have a right to be in a family… nobody should be thrown out,” says Pope Francis

The media was abuzz this week about a new documentary by Evgeny Afineevsky entitled ‘Francesco’ (https://www.francescofilm.com/). It premiered in Rome on Wednesday, and it has been reported that the Pope said in the film: “Homosexual people have a right to be in a family,” … “They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or made miserable over it.” … “What we have to create is a ‘civil union’ law. That way they are legally covered.”

 In one sense this is news, but in another, it is not.

All Catholics are well-aware that the sacrament of marriage is held to be between a man and a woman. But Catholics are also aware that a sacramental marriage is different to a civil marriage, and that a marriage is different to a civil union.

The advantage of the legal protections Francis desires is familiar to us in South Africa, where we have the Civil Union Act which permits civil partnerships. It enables the legal recognition and protection of persons in a relationship. This allows for advantages in society, such as allowing parties to be permitted to visit a loved-one in hospital, to be assured of security and inheritance, and a host of other common-sense protections which without legal recognition could be unjustly or unfairly withheld.

Zealously defending marriage, some Catholics have, in various countries and at various times, sought to oppose the introduction and recognition of civil unions in the mistaken belief that this threatens the sacramental understanding of marriage. But this is not the case. Allowing civil unions does not diminish a Catholics’ understanding or right to celebrate a sacramental marriage between a man and a woman.

What Pope Francis has done neither threatens the sacramental understanding of marriage, but nor is it strictly speaking ‘new’. He is on record for supporting civil unions when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires whilst opposing redefining sacramental marriage. But in re-iterating his support for civil unions as Pope, he is signalling to the Church around the world that we should support civil unions in our own countries. Of course he has not done this in a formal teaching document, but he is communicating his view nonetheless, and Catholics around the world will take note.

This is a work of justice, especially in a continent where so many countries still criminalise homosexuals with imprisonment, or worse, capital punishment. In recognising civil unions he is signalling that criminalising homosexual behaviour can no longer be tolerated. It is not in keeping with the global understanding of human rights, nor the Christian law of love.

The Pope is reminding us of what the Catechism has long taught. Homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” (CCC 2358).

Christians are called to see the individual person as deserving of dignity and not to narrowly stereotype them by their actions. Pope Francis is reminding us that we must encounter the whole person, and not reduce their lives and relationships to what sexual acts they may or may not do together.

It is possible to uphold the sanctity of sacramental marriage between a man and a woman, whilst recognising civil rights and protections for those in a relationship that is not, and does not claim to be, a sacramental marriage.

Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ

Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ entered the Society of Jesus in 2005 and underwent the usual course of studies in his formation, which took him to such varied places as Canada, France, Ireland, Kenya, Spain, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Matthew manages the background technical aspects of much of the Institute's work and is involved in the Spirituality work whilst completing the Advanced Spiritual Directors Training Course and Spiritual Exercises Training run by the Institute. He is a member of Spiritual Directors International and is also a part-time lecturer in Sacred Scripture at St Augustine College of South Africa.

m.charlesworth@jesuitinstitute.org.za @mcharlesworth
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