Pope Francis, Cardinal Dolan, and Civil Unions: What Was Said, and What Wasn't

On March 5, Pope Francis gave an interview to the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera in which he was asked a question concerning civil unions as a legal alternative to marriage.

It's worth reading the entire thing (click here for a word-by-word English translation from Catholic News Agency; and here for one with commentary from La Stampa's Vatican Insider), but as usual, when the hot topic of marriage comes up, the press leaps into action.

Breathless headlines ensued: "Pope Francis: Church could support civil unions" (CNN); "Pope Francis Suggests Gay Civil Unions May Be Tolerable" (Huffington Post); "Pope Francis, Newfound Friend of the Gays, Is Thinking About OKing Civil Unions" (Esquire, illustrated with a photo of the pope hugging a young man whose sexual inclinations do not appear to be a matter of public record; one of many young people, including prisoners and recovering drug addicts, whom the pope embraced warmly during World Youth Day in Brazil last summer).

Here's exactly what was asked and answered:

Corriere della Sera: Many nations have regulated civil unions. Is it a path that the Church can understand? But up to what point?

Pope Francis: Marriage is between a man and a woman. Secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of cohabitation, pushed by the demand to regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring health care. It is about pacts of cohabiting of various natures, of which I wouldn't know how to list the different ways. One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.

And that's it.

The word "gay" is never mentioned. Of course, civil authorities around the world pass all sorts of laws regarding cohabiting individuals that have nothing to do with the Church and not necessarily anything to do with same-sex couples in particular.

As pointed out in a post at the CatholicVote blog: "What Pope Francis does not say is that this necessarily even extends to same-sex couples. Civil unions have a different meaning in Europe where in order to be legally married, you have to appear before a secular magistrate in addition to (for Catholics) the Rite of Holy Matrimony."

Many people, even baptized Christians, wed in purely civil ceremonies without the involvement of clergy. And then there is the vast global panoply of unions that involve clergy of entirely different religions.

As Francis does say, the Catholic Church's view of marriage is between one man and one woman. There's a great deal more to it, but that's the baseline, and anything outside of that is not marriage in the way Catholics understand the term and the concept. As a civil divorce cannot undo a licit Catholic marriage, a civil union cannot create one.

In a pointed opinion piece for Slate, writer Tyler Lopez accurately recognizes this reality, writing: "Being exceedingly careful not to issue an errant endorsements of a loving commitment between same-sex partners, the pope only suggests that the Vatican should examine and evaluate the circumstances of governmentally recognized relationships."

But the Church and the pontiff live in the real world, and since the beginning, there has been tension between Christianity and civil authority.

In the Gospel of Mark, some Pharisees and Herodians seek to trap Jesus, saying, "Master, we know that you are an honest man, that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you, and that you teach the way of God in all honesty. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them or not?"

Scrutinizing a coin of the type used to pay the taxes, Jesus asked his questioners what portrait was stamped into it. They replied that it was Caesar's face.

So Jesus replied, "Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar -- and God, what belongs to God."

This exchange took place three days before Christ was crucified under the law of Caesar. Three days later, Christians believe, He rose from the dead, in defiance of the earthly demise to which the law of the land condemned him.

So while the civil statutes of individual nations do not affect the religious precepts of the Church, Catholic leaders must also try to help the faithful negotiate the balancing act of being good Catholics within the framework of their home countries.

Therefore, on Sunday, March 10, the ever-chatty Cardinal Timothy Dolan waded into the issue while talking to NBC's David Gregory. Admitting that he hadn't read Francis' words but only media reports of them--which, if you pardon the expression, is a cardinal sin--the head of the New York Archdiocese (he's no longer the head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) said:

I'm as eager as you are to read the full extent of that interviewbut if I saw the reports accurately, he didn't come right out and say he was for them. Once again, in an extraordinarily sincere, open, nuanced way, he said, "I know that some people in some states have chosen this, we need to think about that and look into it and see the reasons that have driven them." It isn't as if he came out and approved them, but he just, in the sensitivity that has won the heart of the world, rather than quickly condemn them, let's just ask the question why that is appealing...

Dolan also said, in response to a further question from Gregory, that civil unions for same-sex couples would make him "uncomfortable" and reiterated his support for traditional marriage, both in his sacred sense and as "the building block of society and culture."


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