Pope Francis Oct. 21, 2020
Pope Francis delivers his homily during the weekly audience on October 21, 2020 in Vatican City. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Incremental step is praised by many, while others have opposition or doubt it will go very far.

In a significant departure from longstanding Catholic Church policy, Pope Francis called for laws to allow civil unions for same-sex couples in a documentary that premiered Wednesday in Rome, according to the Catholic News Agency.

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

The pope’s call is a remarkable endorsement of equal legal rights for the LGBTQ community, though he stopped short of changing the official Vatican stance against allowing same-sex couples to partake in the sacrament of marriage or to have sex. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls homosexuality “objectively disordered” and “contrary to natural law,” but says gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and that they must treat same-sex attraction as “a trial” of their faith.

“He’s thinking, ‘Okay, civil unions, I can support that without stepping on other hierarchy toes,’” said Ann Castiglione, founder of Gay & Straight in Christ, a pro-LGBTQ Catholic group based at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Menomonee Falls and several other Milwaukee-area parishes.

Civil unions are essentially the same as marriage but they lack the formal title and are not recognized as a church sacrament. The church will eventually move toward full-fledged endorsement of same-sex marriage, Castiglione believes, but not under Pope Francis.

“I rather doubt that in my lifetime that will happen,” she said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon, as much as I would like to see it.”

Francis previously endorsed civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriages while serving as arachbishop in Buenos Aires. However, he had never come out publicly in favor of civil unions as pope, and no pontiff before him had, either.

“It’s consistent, in my mind, with Francis’ teaching about respecting the dignity of all human beings, and in my mind, that’s a key part of the basic Christian message,” said Richard Wagner, a historian who authored two volumes on the history of gay rights in Wisconsin. Wagner was also the first openly gay elected official in Wisconsin when he was elected to the Dane County Board in 1980.

In 2003 the Vatican’s doctrine office stated the church’s respect for gays “cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.” The US legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, by which time 36 states had already adopted such measures.

Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination, with more than 1.3 billion baptized Catholics worldwide. About a quarter of Americans and almost a third of Wisconsinites are Catholic, according to Gallup. Wagner noted the huge amount of Catholics in Wisconsin means Francis’ declaration could have a big social impact here. Wisconsin was also the first state in the nation to pass a gay rights bill in the 1980s.

Breana Stanley, president of the Chippewa Valley LGBTQ+ Community Center in Eau Claire, said she backs Pope Francis’ action, calling it a “step in the right direction.” 

However, Stanley said, she questions whether Catholic churches will allow same-sex civil unions given longstanding opposition to that practice. The pope has spoken in support of same-sex unions in the past, but those churches have not adopted allowing gay and lesbian marriages, she said. 

“I do support this, but it’s hard to tell whether this will make that big of an impact,” Stanley said. “I hope it helps Catholic churches in our area be more affirming on this issue.”

The Rev. David Huber, pastor at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Eau Claire, said Pope Francis’ backing of same-sex civil unions represents “a really good step forward” in recognizing the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, and his church welcomes them, he said.

“It’s not as far as I would like him to go,” Huber said of the pope’s stance. “But it is probably as far as the Catholic Church will go on this issue for quite a while.” 

How much the pope’s support for same-sex civil unions changes the views of Catholics around the world on that topic remains uncertain, Huber said. While a majority of Catholics support gay marriage, others are strongly opposed, according to a Pew Research Center study

“This might help move more Catholics toward acceptance on this issue, but it’s really hard to say,” Huber said. “This is the kind of issue where it will probably take time to change minds.”

Acceptance is not in the cards for Jerome Listecki, archbishop of the Milwaukee Archdiocese which governs 198 parishes throughout southeastern Wisconsin, who used Francis’ support of civil unions as validation of his conservative view that gay marriage should not be allowed in the church.

“Recently, the Holy Father brought up the issue of civil unions for those with same-sex attraction,” Listecki said in an emailed statement. “In doing so, 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.”