ABC News screenshot

The media have spoken. Pope Francis is changing the Catholic Church’s teaching in favour of same-sex unions. Or is he?

The headlines are drawn from a mere four sentences which we are told the Pontiff spoke during a sit-down interview for the recently released feature film premiered at the Rome Film Festival entitled Francesco.

The four sentences being quoted are these:

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it. What we have to have is a civil union law – that way they are legally covered. I supported that.” *

First, I am wondering if journalists had seen the entire movie before filing their copy. We should therefore be asking: in what context did Pope Francis comment on matters relating to same-sex attraction? And what was the entirety of what he said in the interview?

Second, it is nothing new that, a decade ago when Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis categorically opposed legislation to endorse same-sex “marriage” in Argentina. In Austen Ivereigh’s biography, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, we are told that the then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio:

…was utterly opposed to any attempt to redefine marriage in law. “He wanted to defend marriage but without wounding anybody’s dignity or reinforcing their exclusion,” says a close collaborator of the cardinal’s. “He favoured the greatest possible legal inclusion of gay people and their human rights expressed in law, but would never compromise the uniqueness of marriage as being between a man and a woman for the good of children.”

Bergoglio was always quick to react to any attempt to undermine the conjugal understanding of marriage in Argentinian law. This was best seen in a strong letter written in 2009 to the head of the Buenos Aires city government, Mauricio Macri.

His head of press, Federico Wals, explained in April 2010 that Bergoglio resolutely favoured upholding marriage as being between a man and a woman and that the concept of two people of the same sex being able to marry was an impossibility. He was adamant about opposing same-sex marriage:

“At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”

Third, let us examine exactly what Pope Francis actually said.

Spanish-speakers are reporting that the Pope has been misquoted and misrepresented once again by the mainstream media — he did not even mention “civil unions”. His words were “convivencia civil”, not “unión civil”. This is best understood to mean that people with same-sex attraction should be protected legally by civil law, a protection which for the past 12 years has been in place in Australia since the radical changes made to 85 federal laws. So the Pope is talking about a civil coexistence and not the endorsement of same-sex unions.

Then there are the sentences, “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it.” Never was a truer word spoken.

Every person has a right to be “in” a family, irrespective of their sexual attraction, with every person being created to grow in the image and likeness of God and to live out their true identity as a child of God.

Ivereigh’s biography also stated that:

Bergoglio knew many gay people and had spiritually accompanied a number of them. He knew their stories of rejection by their families and what it was like to live in fear of being singled out and beaten up.

Here we have a Pope who, early in his pontificate, spoke of priests needing to be

shepherds living with “the odour of the sheep”. This I ask you: be shepherds, with the “odour of the sheep”, make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men. (Chrism Mass, 28 March 2013)

No one should be rejected for attractions they do not choose. In fact, the greater a person’s struggle, the greater the need for closer accompaniment, something the Church has still to learn in many areas relating to human sexuality and questioned identity.

Rather than rejoicing or reacting to what the Pontiff said, let us not forget that Francis has been misunderstood, misquoted and misinterpreted previously when asked about people who experience same-sex attraction.

Shortly after becoming Pope, he said of people with a homosexual inclination that “we must be brothers”. He then included: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge him?” What he did not say is solely: “who am I to judge?” He spoke of being non-judgmental towards a soul in pursuit of God and of righteousness. But context was ignored, and misinterpreted, and so the same is happening again today.

It is important to remember that the Church cannot change revealed truth. This means that the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage cannot be changed.

There are also different levels of Church teachings. Should Pope Francis have said what he is quoted as having said, then this does not make it official Church teaching. There are many places for official teaching — and a feature film documentary is not one of them.

What he is not doing is showing support for the practice of homosexuality or the faux-re-gendering of a person to their opposite sex. What he is doing is showing a deep concern for people who have experienced misunderstanding, rejection and name-calling — just as Christ did, and just as Francis himself is now undergoing from certain quarters. Pope Francis continues to reflect on showing the overwhelming mercy of God to one’s neighbour.

The Church has been atrocious at facing, understanding, practically communicating, and living out the transformational teaching of Christ with regards to human sexuality. This has led to many same-sex attracted and gender questioning people believing that there is no place for them within the body of Christ, when this could not be further from the truth.

I honestly believe that Francis is seeking, as best as any 83-year old can do, to remedy this.

Yes, the headlines have spoken, but once again they have miserably misled readers. Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor for the New York Post tweeted: “And sometimes, it’s worth it to wait out a media frenzy.” Or, as Bill Donohue of the Catholic League wisely stated, “the content of [Francis’] remarks is not problematic, but the lack of context is. The laity need clarity, not confusion.”

* Note: here are the sentences in Spanish 
 “Las personas homosexuales tienen derecho a estar en la familia, son hijos de Dios, tienen derecho a una familia. No se puede echar de la familia a nadie ni hacerle la vida imposible por eso. Lo que tenemos que hacer es una ley de convivencia civil, tienen derecho a estar cubiertos legalmente. Yo defendí eso.”

James Parker was a gay rights’ activist. He now facilitates True Identity, an informal network that supports those struggling with sexuality & gender identity issues.