First and foremost: Pope Francis emphasizes that marriage cannot be extended to same-sex couples because it is, by definition, a heterosexual union, just like the Catholic Catechism says. On the other hand, if we don’t call it marriage… heyyyy, that just might work!
Marriage is between a man and a woman. The secular states want to justify civil unions to adjust to different situations of living together, driven by the need to regulate economic aspects between people, such as ensuring health care. These are pacts of coexistence of various kinds, of which I could not identify all the different forms. You have to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.
That… sort of sounds like support for civil unions? Kind of. I guess? Maybe?
It’s not an entirely new position — some bishops have expressed acceptance of it in the past, including the bishop who would become Pope Francis — but it’s the first time any pope has even considered civil unions as a possible compromise. While Pope Francis was expressing his cautious and pragmatic support for civil rights prior to donning the papal tiara — or maybe he wasn’t, depending on who you ask — his predecessor spent his pre-papacy days doing virtually the polar opposite. In 2003, Joseph Ratzinger, as prefect, assisted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in producing a cheery little document called Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons in which they argued that
… the Church’s teaching on marriage and on the complementarity of the sexes reiterates a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world… No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman.
You can see why Francis comes across as positively revolutionary.
And yet, it’s also fairly typical of Pope Francis. He’s not thinking about civil liberties here; he’s thinking about economic justice, poverty, and need. Some same-sex individuals pursue civil unions because they need to get on their partners’ health care plans or need help handling unemployment, not necessarily because they’re in love or interested in starting a family. If Francis could ensure that everyone had access to jobs and benefits, he might well have stopped at “Marriage is between a man and a woman.”
So it’s better than nothing. But not by a ton.
Rather, it’s another one of those cases where the pope says something in tepid support of people the Church has always considered hell-bound and the majority of mainstream society says how cool he is, while the most traditional Catholics writhe and scream and say either that he really meant to affirm traditional teaching or that he’s an outrage, barely counts as Catholic, and might well be the Antichrist.
If this story holds true to the genre, we can expect a Vatican official to speak up in the next couple of days, explaining how the pope didn’t really mean we could actually accept gay people having normal marital relationships, even if we talk about it like they’re only getting “marriage lite.”