In a recent documentary, Francesco, the Pope’s comments regarding homosexual civil unions has brought much confusion and even seeming scandal to the Catholic Church, making many question whether the Church might be changing its doctrine on homosexuality. But this is far from the truth; we need only to examine the context and nature of this statement in order to understand its original meaning and the level of authority it has over Catholics. There are five certain criteria to examine the level of authority of certain statements: namely, its author, form, audience, subject, and source.
The Pope’s Statement
Let us begin by looking at what exactly Pope Francis said, and what parts of this may be objectionable. First of all, the Pope commented that “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 be made miserable over it.” To this, I believe all Catholics should agree. No child should be rejected from their family, no matter what the sin. We ought to show respect, kindness, and compassion to everyone as a human being made in the image and likeness of God. What is problematic is the Pope’s comment that “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.” Since this seems in contradiction to Church teaching on the morality of homosexual unions, we will examine this comment using the criteria previously mentioned and how we as Catholics should respond.
This was a comment from the Pope, which seems it should have the highest authority (and it does, when he speaks infallibly to the whole Church from the chair of St. Peter); however, in this context of a secular interview (which was even taken out of context when put into the movie), Pope Francis was not speaking in his official teaching office as Pope. Now, it is important to note that “While serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, [Pope Francis,] the then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio endorsed extending civil union protections to gay couples.” However, this was only “as an alternative to moves by the country to approve same-sex marriage, which he firmly opposed,” and “he had never come out publicly in favor of legal protections for civil unions as pope, and no pontiff before him had, either.” Furthermore, even if he had spoken this in the past as bishop, speaking as an individual bishop only has authority in so far as he is in accordance with the official doctrine of the Church and the teaching of the Pope and Bishops as a whole. A comment is suspect if it seems to go against the Sacred Tradition and official doctrine of the Church—and this comment should be examined as such.
This comment was not spoken in the form of an official document or decree of the Church; it was not a Papal encyclical, constitution, or other official decree to the Catholic Church. It was not even spoken as an instruction to the Catholic faithful such as in a Papal audience or even merely a homily as a priest. This was a comment in a documentary, which was actually taken out of context from a 2019 interview (a clip not included in the interview when it aired). The comment was not only in a secular form (not an official statement of the Church), but it was also taken out of context when it was spliced into this new documentary on Pope Francis. Thus, such a form has weak authority and should be taken with a grain of salt.
Because this was, as I mentioned above, not an official decree of the Church or a teaching of the Pope from the seat of Peter (or even as a bishop of the Church), this statement was not addressed to the Church as a whole, nor even to a diocese of the Church. This was a statement spoken in a secular interview, which would be shown to the world at large, but was not even aired in its original context. Such a statement in an interview that could be shown to such a wide audience was an unwise decision on the Pope’s part, since it could be (and was) misrepresented, misunderstood, and even inciting of scandal—but it does not have the authority of a statement spoken as Pope to the Catholic Church.
As previously mentioned, this comment was taken out of context, and it was also not even the main topic of the original interview, which was speaking on clergy sexual abuse. Furthermore, though this comment regards same sex unions (which is a moral matter and is certainly within the subjects that the Church has authority on), it is more nuanced than that because the Pope was speaking of civil unions here and not marriage. As explained on a podcast by two Dominican friars, the Pope in fact only intended to support civil unions of homosexual couples so that the government would not seek to redefine marriage; thus, in his mind, the Pope was actually trying to protect the meaning of marriage. Thus, this is not a statement on the morality of same sex unions, but rather a prudential judgement of the Pope in the realm of politics to seek a compromise. Whether he is right in making such a compromise is a separate matter, but first I simply wish to make this distinction. This was not a statement on the morality of same sex marriage or even civil unions, but rather a prudential judgement. And the prudential judgements of the Pope, unlike his official teachings as Pope, are certainly fallible (and in this case seem to be in contradiction to Church teaching).
One must also address “the source from which the doctrinal decision is derived,” such as whether it is drawn directly or indirectly from scripture or Sacred Tradition, or if it is a theological, philosophical, or logical deduction. Aside from the fact that this was not a doctrinal decision but rather a prudential judgement, this comment from the Pope is only drawn from Scripture and Tradition in so far as the Pope was A) seeking to protect the dignity of gay individuals as human beings made in the image and likeness of God, thus deserving respect and compassion; and B) actually seeking to protect the sanctity of marriage as the union between one man and one woman. However, the means in which he proposes to do this, e.i. by supporting same-sex civil unions, seems to be in contradiction to more official statements of the Catholic Church. An official Vatican document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states that “The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.” Furthermore, even though this document from the Vatican may not be in itself an infallible document per se, it does speak quite definitively and with a higher authority than the previously mentioned statements from the Pope; therefore, we ought to at the very least err on the side of the statement of higher authority.
How Catholics Should Respond
Thus, we as Catholics must respect all individuals as persons and show them compassion and kindness, while at the same time must never compromise our values by supporting that which is sinful and harmful to the soul. The Pope is correct to say that homosexual individuals deserve a home in the family (in that children who struggle with or even fully accept homosexuality should not be rejected from their families, and we should always be compassionate to everyone, no matter what their sins); but this does not mean that we should compromise by encouraging civil unions. We must hate the sin, not the sinner—accept the person, yet reject the sin which will harm their soul. We must speak and live out the truth, even when it is difficult, out of love.
(Please also see my post on Degrees of Church Authority: Should We Believe Everything the Catholic Church Says?)
God bless and keep you,
 Heinrich Denzinger, Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals. “Suggestion for the Theological Use of ‘Denzinger,’” (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 43rd edition.
 As cited by Cindy Wooden, “UPDATE: Pope has history of defending marriage, but being open to some civil unions,” Catholic News Service. Oct 21, 2020. https://www.catholicnews.com/update-pope-has-history-of-defending-marriage-but-being-open-to-some-civil-unions/
 Nicole Winfield and Maria Verza, “Mexico broadcaster: Pope’s civil union quote not broadcast,” AP News. Oct 22, 2020. https://apnews.com/article/pope-francis-same-sex-civil-unions-44558168e3a9fc56d0821cdd544f77ad
 Fr. Jacob Bertrand Janczyk and Fr. Gregory Pine, Godsplaining. “067 – Pope Francis and Civil Unions.” Soundcloud.com. https://soundcloud.com/godsplaining/067-pope-francis-and-civil-unions?ref=fbmessenger&p=a&c=0
 “Suggestions for the Theological Use of ‘Denzinger.’”
 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons,” Vatican. https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20030731_homosexual-unions_en.html
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My pleasure! Thank you for reading!