The Pope and Civil Unions

In the course of the in-flight press conference after his Apostolic Journey to Hungary and Slovakia, Pope Francis was asked: “[Y]esterday arrived news of a resolution in the European Parliament which invites the member states to recognize same-sex marriages and related parenting relationships. Holy Father, what are your thoughts on this?”  The pope responded by defending marriage as a sacrament: “I have spoken clearly about this: marriage is a sacrament, marriage is a sacrament. And the Church does not have the power to change the sacraments. They are thus, as the Lord has instituted [for] us.” But he also endorsed civil unions for homosexuals

Prior to and apart from its elevation by Christ to that sacramental reality, marriage is a natural reality willed by God in the act of creating the first man and woman. Natural marriage between the unbaptized must be given legal recognition and protection, irrespective of the status that marriage enjoys as a sacrament between the baptized. This means that any legal innovation by the state that offends against the unique dignity and value of marriage – be it sacramental or non-sacramental – between one man and one woman, such as same-sex “marriage” or its legal equivalent in the form of civil unions, must be resisted by the Church. Such innovations are offensive to God and harmful to the common good.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons (2003), approved by Pope John Paul II, states:

Laws in favor of homosexual unions are contrary to right reason because they confer legal guarantees, analogous to those granted to marriage, to unions between persons of the same sex. . . .The inevitable consequence of legal recognition of homosexual unions would be the redefinition of marriage, which would become, in its legal status, an institution devoid of essential reference to factors linked to heterosexuality; for example, procreation and raising children. If, from the legal standpoint, marriage between a man and a woman were to be considered just one possible form of marriage, the concept of marriage would undergo a radical transformation, with grave detriment to the common good. By putting homosexual unions on a legal plane analogous to that of marriage and the family, the State acts arbitrarily and in contradiction with its duties.

Pope Francis, however, interprets the legal recognition of same-sex marriages as “laws that try to help the situation of many people of different sexual orientations. And this is important, to help these people, but without imposing things that by their nature do not enter in the Church. But if they want to support a homosexual couple in life together, states have the possibility of civilly supporting them, of giving security through inheritance, health [insurance].”


Is it the mission of the Church’s pastors to imply that the legalization of same-sex “marriage,” or its de facto equivalent same-sex civil unions, is primarily an effort to “help” or “support” people who embrace the homosexual lifestyle? The plain answer is “no.” The state can grant such legal benefits as it wants to citizens without creating counterfeit versions of marriage. Don’t two people who enter into a homosexual relationship need to be reminded that they are living in grave sin?

Confirming two men or two women who publicly pledge their commitment to engage in the gravely disordered act of sodomy in the illusion that they are somehow entitled to receive legal status and the benefits previously recognized as accruing only to married couples is manifestly contrary to the mission of the Church. Such unions are morally harmful to the people involved and to society as a whole. Any approval by the Church of these arrangements is an anti-evangelical endorsement of behavior offensive to God. Claiming that the state is trying to do something good by such measures is a profound error that undermines the supernatural mission of the Church.

Pope Francis says: “But marriage is marriage. This is not to condemn people who are like that, no, please, they are our brothers and sisters, and we must accompany them. But marriage as a sacrament is clear, it is clear. . . .Sometimes what I have said is confusing. All the same, respect everyone. The good Lord will save everyone – do not say this aloud [laughs] – but the Lord wants to save everyone.”

There is no doubt that the Lord wants to save everyone, but the Church has never taught that “[t]he good Lord will save everyone.” The only obstacle to any person’s salvation is grave sin. Sodomy is a grave sin. The Church is called by God to teach this truth to everyone, and in particular to those who fall into this sin. The Christian accompaniment of those who are living in sin never means saying that their immoral lifestyle deserves public recognition and support by the state. Such an endorsement bolsters the false claim that people have a right to homosexual activity, a right that the state must respect.  Their salvation will be hindered, not promoted, if the Church in any way gives the impression that she supports a lifestyle that is gravely sinful and socially destructive.

“The denial of the social and legal status of marriage to forms of cohabitation that are not and cannot be marital is not opposed to justice; on the contrary, justice requires it.” So taught Pope John Paul II. So has the Church has always taught.

Pope Francis’ renewed endorsement of same-sex civil unions is gravely scandalous and causes immense harm to souls. There is no basis in Catholic teaching or pastoral practice to support his mistaken notion that the Church should endorse and praise civil union laws that give legal sanction to the homosexual lifestyle and grant to the act of sodomy a legal significance that, in truth and justice, only belongs to the marital union of husband and wife.


*Image: The Burning of Sodom by Camille Corot 1857 [The MET, New York]

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The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.