What Pope Francis’ Support for Same-Sex Civil Union Mean for the Philippines

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In the clearest language since his ascent to the papacy, Pope Francis has endorsed same-sex civil union in an interview for the feature-length documentary Francesco that premiered on Wednesday at the Rome Film Festival.

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“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God,” the pope said in one of his sit-down interviews for the film, AP News reports. “You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered,” the Jesuit pope added in line with the topic of pastoral outreach to people who identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The film also features previously unseen interviews with the pope and discusses issues the pope cares the most about such as environmental protection, poverty, migration, inequality, and discrimination.

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Though he is still opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage, Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his support for the LGBTQIA+ community and has taken more tolerant stances on homosexuality compared to his predecessors in the Vatican. In his stint as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he has made an endorsement of civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriage, after losing a fervent political battle against Argentina’s growing support for same-sex marriage.

In 2013, Pope Francis also hinted at his openness in accepting the LGBTQIA+ community in the Catholic Church after being asked about a gay priest saying, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” He later on expounded on this now historic remark after gaining international media attention. “I am glad that we are talking about ‘homosexual people’ because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity,” Francis said in a 2016 interview with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli. “And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love.” In the same year, he also called for Christians to apologize to gay people for their oppression.

However, progressives have criticized Pope Francis in the past for his seemingly contradictory statements when it comes to the LGBTQIA+ community. In 2017, he denounced gender-reaffirming surgery while speaking in the Pontifical Academy for Life. This has made some of his critics think that his remarks are insufficient and do not count as anything revolutionary.

But this remark in Francesco is a clear expression of support for same-sex civil union and a breakaway from the otherwise stringent view of the Roman Catholic Church toward supporting civil unions for same-sex couples in the 21st century.

A 2003 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith suggested that even though the church respects and recognizes the dignity of homosexual persons, this cannot lead to the approval of homosexual behavior or to the legal recognition of homosexual unions. Doing so would be equivalent to condoning “deviant behavior” and creating an equivalence of marriage, which the church believes is an “indissoluble union between man and woman.”

The document was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later on became Pope Benedict XVI under the tutelage of Pope John Paul II in the Vatican. Both of them are predecessors to Pope Francis.

Francesco director Evgeny Afineevsky, who is gay himself, believes that Pope Francis was not trying to change the teachings of the church but was simply reaffirming his longstanding views on equal rights. After all, what the pope endorses is a civil union and not a marriage under the Catholic Church. He says the pope was endorsing more for legal protections for same-sex partners and not the recognition of their partnership under the Catholic faith.

Metro Manila Pride trustee and gender equality advocate Thysz Estrada has similar interpretations of the pope’s remark. She believes that although it carries weight for states, it does not directly intend to alter existing church teachings on homosexuality.

“I think the pope just wants to end religious opposition to civil unions and for everyone to be able to create family units regardless of sex. I don’t think he wants to change any existing dogma on homosexuality,” Estrada has said in a tweet.

In the course of his papacy, Pope Francis has ministered to gays and transsexual prostitutes and opened his circle to people in same-sex partnerships. He has also expressed his support for the community on multiple occasions, even in off-the-cuff remarks. This has made the pope quite a controversial figure, especially within the more conservative wing of the Roman Catholic Church.

Whether local church figures in the Philippines share Pope Francis’ views and likewise endorse same-sex unions in the country is still unclear. What’s clear, however, is that if the Catholic clergies echo the pope’s remarks, it could render immense political influence in the country. Fr. Jerome Secillano, executive secretary of the Public Affairs Committee of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, refuses to comment.

Senator Tito Sotto, on the other hand, doubts that Pope Francis’ endorsement will have any effect on lawmakers’ views on passing a law legalizing same-sex union. He said that it’s already being practiced despite not being legally recognized and that it should be left at that, or risk ridicule from other religions and sectors of society.

But two lawmakers from the lower chamber of Congress disagree with Sotto’s views and believe that Pope Francis’ comments can renew the push for House Bill (HB) Nos. 1357 and 2264, both of which concern civil partnerships.

Bagong Henerasyon Party-List representative Bernadette Herrera-Dy said that Pope Francis’ support for the legalization of civil union laws could be “exactly the impetus needed” to melt away opposition to the civil partnership bill.

Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez of Davao del Norte, author of HB №2264, also said that we should be “optimistic that more legislators in the House and in the Senate become open and supportive to the objectives of House Bill 2264.”

“Our LGBT brothers and sisters deserve to have protections, under the law, for their respective union with the person they choose to be their life partner,” he added.

Regardless of Sotto’s stance, however, the pope’s comment is a win for the LGBTQIA+ community. “For so long, the shield that lawmakers and government leaders who can’t seem to separate Church and State have utilized against [the] passage of same-sex civil unions [is] very conservative interpretations of Church teachings,” Estrada said. “It matters a lot that the new position of the Pope is to not oppose LGBTQ+ individuals . . . to pursue acknowledgment of the legal status of civil partnerships. Time for the Tito Sottos, Pacquiaos & other political conservatives *cough* hypocrites to heed this call,” she added.

In the past, conservative figures in Congress have used the teachings of the church to oppose the idea of equal rights for the LGBTQIA+ community and, consequently, legislations that carry the cause. For one, the SOGIE Equality Bill which aims to criminalize discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression has been pending for the past 20 years. Though the bill does not have any provision on same-sex civil unions, it could be a powerful testament to the dismal status of gender equality in the country.

Pope Francis’ expression of support for a civil union for same-sex couples carries expansive significance — one that can change the direction of how the Congress, and even judicial courts, view the issue of gender equality. Even if the changes are not immediate, it is refreshing to find an ally in the Vatican, and in the papal seat no less.

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