Why the pope’s endorsement of same-sex unions matters

Pope Francis’s moderating tone has shifted the conceptual landscape in which homosexuality is imagined and judged.

Head of the Catholic Church and the Vatican City, Pope Francis, attends an event in Rome, Italy 20, Oct, 2020 [Riccardo De Luca - Anadolu Agency]

Pope Francis’s support for same-sex civil unions, extracted from a 2019 interview and recently broadcast, has reverberated around the world. Not surprisingly, it is the only snippet from “Francesco”, a wide-ranging documentary on his life, that has garnered extensive media attention and strong reactions, from unqualified praise to vocal rejection. But for people around the globe experiencing radical exclusion cloaked in terms of culture, religion and traditional morality, the pope’s remarks resonate deeply.

In Argentina, as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Francis supported same-sex unions in a private meeting at a time when the extension of marriage seemed inevitable. Some say he saw civil unions as the lesser of two evils, a secular compromise to protect the Catholic Church’s view of marriage – a task he then described as “God’s war”. Whatever the reason, his willingness to endorse same-sex civil unions marked a significant break with Catholic orthodoxy. Since Argentina embraced same-sex marriage a decade ago, the recognition of marriage equality has gained momentum, with 29 countries now on board. Significantly, several Catholic-majority countries, including Colombia, Ireland and Malta, have taken this step.

But for Francis to restate support for civil unions as pope marks a milestone. When it comes to advancing sexual and reproductive rights, the Holy See consistently has sought to block rights recognised by international human rights law. It opposes abortion under all circumstances, opposes most forms of contraception, and uses its UN observer status to oppose any references to “gender” in UN resolutions and initiatives. Decades ago, it initiated a crusade against so-called “gender ideology” that has morphed into a movement against women’s rights and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) people.

For the Catholic Church, consistent with a “love the sinner, hate the sin” adage central to its doctrine, “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered”. From this perspective, homosexuality is a condition to be borne with grace, not an identity around which to claim equal rights. Yet the Vatican has taken a public stance against violence, criminal penalties, and unjust discrimination against homosexuals. And while these messages do not always resonate with the priesthood or laity, they have helped moderate zealous denunciation of homosexuality on religious grounds.

While Pope Francis has not changed Catholic doctrine, he has consistently downplayed a moral emphasis on sexuality as the key issue of our time, suggesting instead that poverty and inequality, as well as climate catastrophes, are more pressing concerns. In that sense, he has opted out of one aspect of the culture wars in which homosexuality has been front and centre. One of the ways he has done this is to focus on individuals, not abstractions. His now-famous “Who am I to judge?” remark to a journalist about gay priests, as well as support and encouragement to other LGBTQ individuals in his purview, allows for individual empathy while rejecting gay rights.

The Catholic Church also faces practical challenges, given the growing diversity of families. The family ideal promoted by the church is increasingly divorced from lived reality. Increasingly, same-sex couples are raising children, which begs the question of how to include these families into the Catholic Church. The pope’s acknowledgement that gay and lesbian people are “children of God and have a right to a family” echoes this long-standing dialogue. This message will be a balm for the disproportionate number of LGBTQ youth who find themselves banished from their families and homeless.

At various points in time different social groups are banished from the body politic, creating a dichotomy between those who belong and those who do not, between insiders and outsiders, own and other. A characteristic of this tendency is to project negative, undesirable and threatening aspects of the social order onto an aberrant other. Given that nations are invariably imagined in symbols of sex and gender – represented by ideals of masculinity and femininity, with the conventional family as the building block of the nation, it is no wonder sexual minorities are one of those outsider groups blamed for a nation’s ills.

In an era of globalisation, LGBTQ rights have become a lightning rod for contestations over tradition and culture. Poland represents an extreme version, with local officials declaring many towns “LGBT-free zones”. In Russia, the “gay propaganda law” is deployed as political shorthand to bolster conservative politics at home and position Russia as the defender of “traditional values” abroad.

The propaganda-style laws initiated by Russia have been emulated elsewhere and represent a way of legislating away certain expressions of identity, seen as undesirable, and foreign to the cultural values of the nation. In Nigeria, a law that outlaws the expression of LGBTQ identities is held up as a symbol of national sovereignty, as was Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law.

In a world in which LGBTQ rights have become a marker of modernity, the defence of “traditional values” is almost invariably couched in terms of defending the family from the encroachment of modernity, and its perceived permissiveness. In Indonesia, LGBTQ rights are seen as a foreign threat to hegemonic masculinity and to the nation. Egypt denounces “Western decadence” as a rationale for prosecuting Egyptians on debauchery charges.

This rhetorical exclusion fails to recognise that local activists have developed a movement based on their own lives rather than echoing their Western counterparts. It also means LGBTQ people are likely to be treated poorly, or even violently. In Russia, Chechen authorities justified the roundup, torture, and enforced disappearance of men assumed to be gay as a way of cleansing the nation, the latest in a long line of people whom the Chechen authorities see as socially undesirable.

Francis’s moderating tone has shifted the conceptual landscape in which homosexuality is imagined and judged. His endorsement of civil unions takes this a step further. The pope is saying society will not fall, and will indeed be strengthened if the civil, secular law provides orderly recognition of same-sex relationships. That is a quantum leap. No wonder activists from countries such as Bolivia, the Philippines, Poland, Uganda, and Zimbabwe have welcomed his remarks. It is a “do as I say, not as I do” scenario, as Catholic doctrine remains unchanged, but what Pope Francis said on civil unions matters a great deal.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.