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5 Reasons Why the Pope’s Support of Same-Sex Civil Unions Is Important

Professor Naomi Moland shares five reasons why the Pope's support of same-sex civil unions is important.

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Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, expressed support for same-sex civil unions in the new documentary Francesco. He stated that gay people are children of God and said, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way, they are legally covered.” Do his remarks signal a shift for the Roman Catholic Church, and how significant are they in the global context of LGBT+ rights?

SIS professor Naomi Moland, who has researched and written about issues of global LGBT rights, shared with us five reasons why Pope Francis’ support of same-sex civil unions is important.

  1. In many countries, cultural and religious beliefs are formidable barriers to more inclusive LGBT legislation. The current status of global LGBT rights can be mapped on a continuum from countries where homosexuality is criminalized (68 countries, including 11 that include the death penalty) to countries where same-sex marriage is legal (27 countries). The remaining countries fall somewhere in between, ranging in the degree of protections and rights afforded LGBT populations
  2. Americans may underestimate the immense power and influence that the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church have in many countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa. Beyond cultural and religious influence, the Roman Catholic Church is involved in legislation in many countries. For example, after Belize decriminalized homosexuality in 2016, the Roman Catholic Church of Belize filed an appeal to reinstate the criminalization. The Pope’s pro-civil unions statement could have major implications in many countries.
  3. This is not the first time Pope Francis has expressed support for the LGBT community. As archbishop in Buenos Aires, he endorsed civil unions for gay couples. In 2013, he said, “If someone who is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” However, this is his clearest and most progressive statement on the matter since becoming Pope, and it suggests not only tolerance but legal coverage for LGBT families.
  4. While these LGBT-tolerant statements signal increased acceptance of LGBT populations by the Roman Catholic Church, nothing has changed in terms of official doctrine or policy—and Pope Francis is still decidedly against gay marriage within the church. The reluctance to change church policy could be connected to the Catholic Church’s expanding presence in the Southern Hemisphere, where church leadership and parishioners are generally less likely to accept homosexuality.
  5. This statement comes as an important message to LGBT Catholics and aligns with Pope Francis’ generally more tolerant and inclusive tone (particularly compared to his predecessor, who connected same-sex marriage to the Antichrist). It may also serve as a message condemning violence committed against LGBT individuals in an effort to make it clear that people cannot be committing this violence in the church’s name. This message may lead some Catholics to examine their views, such as those in Poland, where “LGBT-free zones” have recently been established across the country (supported by senior members of the Catholic Church), and LGBT Poles face significant discrimination and violence.