Cardinal O’Malley says Pope Francis’ civil unions remarks ‘not an endorsement of homosexual activity’

The pope's comments, which captured the attention of many, came during an interview midway through a feature-length documentary, “Francesco."

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims gathered in St Peter's square during his Sunday Angelus prayer on October 25, 2020, at the Vatican.
Pope Francis waves to pilgrims gathered in St Peter's square during his Sunday Angelus prayer on October 25, 2020, at the Vatican. –Photo by VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images

When Pope Francis recently voiced his support for same-sex civil unions for the first time, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley reacted just a day later, saying the pontiff’s “endorsement of civil unions is not an endorsement of homosexual activity.”

Francis’ comments, which captured the attention of many, came during an interview midway through a feature-length documentary, “Francesco,” that had its premiere Wednesday at the Rome Film Festival.

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God,” he said in the film. “What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”

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No pope before Francis had publicly been in favor of legal protections for civil unions. O’Malley said in a statement that while “many people are anxious for the Church to change its position on marriage and family,” the pope’s comments do not represent a groundbreaking shift in the church’s teachings.

Pope Francis strongly and consistently teaches that marriage is between a man and woman for a lifetime and that this is God’s plan for having and raising children,” O’Malley said. “Just as the Church does not campaign against civil laws that allow for common-law marriage or second marriages that are not sacramental, even though such arrangements can be in violation of the laws of the Church, the Holy Father recognizes that in civil society there can be cogent reasons to enact such laws providing for civil unions which are not the same as the institution of marriage.”

Local Boston LGBTQ+ advocates praised Francis’ remarks, calling his new stance a significant step closer to equality, The Boston Globe reported

It will have an impact across our country — even though we already have the right to marry — and across the globe,” Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, told the newspaper. “There are many people who want to be supportive of LGBTQ families who sometimes feel they have to hold back because of their faith, and this gives them permission to follow their heart, and do what they would like to do but were afraid of doing.”

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Only hours after the Pope’s comments were made public, Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin also offered his thoughts, saying the pontiff’s words needed to be clarified. 

“The Pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the Church about same-sex unions. The Church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships,” Tobin said in a statement. “Individuals with same-sex attraction are beloved children of God and must have their personal human rights and civil rights recognized and protected by law. However, the legalization of their civil unions, which seek to simulate holy matrimony, is not admissible.”

O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, added that Pope Francis has always seen civil unions as a way for governments to provide protection and health care “for couples in long-term, committed relationships, whether they be siblings or friends or partners. Such arrangements are not always of a sexual nature.”

“The Holy Father is very aware of the suffering and alienation of homosexual individuals, gay people, who are rejected by family and society. He is also keenly aware of the parents and loved ones who also suffer because a member of their family is bullied or marginalized for being different,” O’Malley continued. “Our task is to show people that we love them and care about them and that together we can strive to be better people, more generous, more courageous and more faithful to what God is calling us to do.”

Isaacson told the Globe that O’Malley’s “edits and rewrites of the pope’s statements,” still wouldn’t erase what he said. 

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“He may wish to do that, but I think the pope’s words speak for themselves,” Isaacson told the newspaper. “We all heard about them, we all read them, and we were all deeply touched by them and deeply appreciative.”

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