Pope Francis, Civil Unions, and Infallibility

The following is a homily that a priest friend in Ottawa is delivering this weekend.

Pope Francis recently made headlines when a new documentary on his life entitled “Francesco” premiered at the Rome Film Festival on October 21.  The documentary includes footage of the Pope saying that homosexuals have “a right to a family” and that he “stood up” for the creation of “a civil union law” for them.

The statement received international news attention.  Soon afterward Archbishop Prendergast sent a memo to pastors cautioning that “in addressing this matter with the faithful to avoid the extremes of either seeing this as a bold new move (it isn’t as [Pope Francis] has spoken before on these matters and he isn’t changing the Church’s teaching on marriage) or as a heretical move (the Church’s magisterium is not formulated in sound bites in a documentary).”

About a week later the Vatican Secretariat of State, at the request of Pope Francis, issued an explanatory note.  (The full text of the document will be posted on the parish website with my homily.)  So, what I am about to say takes into account both the advice of our Archbishop and the official explanation given by the Vatican Secretariat of State.

The director of “Francesco,” Evgeny Afineevsky, originally told reporters that the comments were made to him by Pope Francis.  But journalists later discovered that the Pope’s remarks actually came from a 2019 interview with Mexico’s Televisa broadcaster. Some of the Televisafootage had not been previously aired.

Afineevsky apparently obtained the original, uncut footage from the Vatican archives. He then edited two different answers that Pope Francis gave to two different questions in the Televista interview into one statement, removing much of their context.  

In one answer, the Pope was referring to homosexual persons as having a right to be accepted by their own families (i.e. by their parents and siblings). After all they too are children of God. He was not referring to homosexuals having a right to create their own families (through adoption, invitro fertilization, or the use of surrogates).

The other comment, about same-sex civil unions, did not follow the first but came from a different part of the Televisa interview. There Pope Francis was referring to a position he took as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when in 2010 the Argentinian government was seeking to legalize same-sex marriage. As Archbishop he strongly opposed same-sex marriage, but favored extending certain legal provisions to homosexual couples “so that they would be legally covered” under what was understood in Argentina as a civil union law. As he says in the documentary, “I stood up for that.” 

So, this episode offers a good cautionary tale against accepting what you hear on the news at face value.  That said, I must admit that even without the documentary’s questionable editing, Pope Francis’ manner of speaking is not always precise, especially when speaking casually, and so can cause understandable confusion as to what exactly he means?  If it were not so, there would not be these controversies and a need for the Vatican to issue later clarifications.

But this controversy offers a great opportunity for me to say something about the Church’s teaching on papal infallibility.  It is a commonly misunderstood dogma.

Infallibility is not the same as inspiration.  Inspiration is a special gift of the Holy Spirit given to the human authors of the Bible, so that they wrote the things God wanted written down. The Pope is not inspired.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were inspired.

Papal infallibility simply means that when the Pope invokes the full authority of his office as successor of Peter (Matthew 16:18-19; John 21:15-17), with the intention of declaring something to be held as true by the whole Church on a particular matter of faith or morals, he is protected by the Holy Spirit from teaching error. And it only applies to matters of faith or morals, not other human disciplines like politics, economics, history or science.

It does not mean everything the Pope says is infallible or that he cannot err when giving his personal opinion on something. Also, it does not mean that he is free to declare something a matter of Church teaching that contradicts the sources of divine revelation: Sacred Scripture and Tradition.  In fact, papal teaching must be rooted in Scripture and Tradition.  The Pope is the servant of the Faith not the master. 

It was at the First Vatican Council in 1870 that papal infallibility was definitively taught.  In its declaration we read: “For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His [the Holy Spirit’s] revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”

For example, a Pope cannot declare, “As of today, all Catholics must believe that Jesus was not the Son of God” because the sources of divine revelation teach us that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.  

Neither does infallibility mean perfection. Infallible statements are not perfect statements; they can be improved upon.  Future Councils of the Church or subsequent popes may improve on a statement with better or more precise language.  Yet infallible statements, once proclaimed by the Magisterium (i.e. the teaching authority of the Church), can never be contradicted or rejected.  They can only be further clarified and their implications probed more deeply.

How often has the Pope invoked the full authority of his office and declared something infallibly true?  Very rarely.  While there is some disagreement among scholars, all agree that it was used at least once since being defined in 1870.  That was in 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven as a dogma of the Church.  Once in 150 years!

We need to remember that the Pope invoking papal infallibility is not the ordinary way that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in all truth (John 16:13).  Papal infallibility is an extraordinary means (i.e. beyond the usual) – just like Ecumenical Councils – that is used in special circumstances.  

The ordinary way the Church proclaims the Faith in its entirety and with integrity is by the constant and consistent teaching of the same truths by the popes and all the bishops of the Church from year to year, down through the centuries, and around the world, repeating them and applying those same truths to new circumstances and questions as they arise.  As St. Vincent of Lérins put it in the 5th century: “That Faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” (Commonitorium). In this sense, infallibility is a charism of the Church as a whole.  Amen.

The Vatican’s Clarification of Pope Francis’ Comment in the Documentary “Francesco”

[Taken verbatim from the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall website, under “News Releases”https://catholicottawa.ca/news-releases]:

At the request of the Holy Father, the Secretariat of State of the Vatican has prepared an explanatory document (in Italian) in response to the release of the documentary entitled Francesco.

The document, received in Ottawa on October 30, 2020, clarifies the context of certain statements made by His Holiness and contained in the documentary.

Here below is the CCCB’s unofficial translation in English. The original words in Spanish were not translated because they are textual in the documentary.

Unofficial translation of the CCCB:

Some statements, contained in the documentary “Francesco” by director Evgeny Afineevsky, have given risen to different reactions and interpretations in recent days. Therefore, here are some useful points in order to bring about, at his request, a correct understanding of the words of the Holy Father.

Over a year ago, in an interview, Pope Francis answered two distinct questions at two different times which, in the aforementioned documentary, were drafted and published as a single answer without due contextualization, which led to confusion. The Holy Father had firstly made a pastoral reference on the need that, within the family, the son or daughter with a homosexual orientation should never be discriminated against. These are the words in reference to it: “Las personas homosexuales tienen derecho a estar en familia; son hijos de Dios, tienen derecho a una familia. No se puede echar de la familia a nadie ni hacerle la vida imposibile por eso”.

The following paragraph of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Love in the Family Amoris Laetitia (2016) can illuminate these expressions: “During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children. We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided,276 particularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.” (n. 250).

A subsequent question in the interview was instead inherent to a local law of ten years ago in Argentina on “matrimonios igualitarios de parejas del mismo sexo” and to the opposition to it by the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In this regard, Pope Francis affirmed that “es una incongruencia hablar de matrimonio homosexual”, adding that, in this precise context, he had spoken of the right of these persons to have legal protection: “lo que tenemos que hacer es una ley de convivencia civil; tienen derecho a estar cubiertos legalmente. Yo defendí eso”.

The Holy Father expressed himself in the following way during an interview in 2014: “Marriage is between a man and a woman. Secular States want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of living together, driven by the need for regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring health care. These are living together agreements of various kinds, of which I cannot list the different forms. It is necessary to see the different cases and evaluate them case by case”.

It is therefore evident that Pope Francis was referring to particular State measures, certainly not to the doctrine of the Church, which has been reiterated numerous times over the years.