Pope Francis starts a most unlikely debate

The disclosure this week of Pope Francis’ support of same-sex civil unions sent shockwaves not only among members of the Catholic Church but most all religious and conservative circles around the world. 

In some ways, the Pope’s comments are not surprising.

When he was still known as Archbishop Bergoglio and Argentina was debating the legalisation of gay marriage, the future Pope was reported to have made similar remarks in 2010.

Although he publicly denounced gay marriage as unholy and against God’s plan, several sources reported him making more moderate remarks about civil unions when speaking privately.

In 2013, the year of his election to the papacy, the New York Times ran a front-page report that he had told a gathering of Bishops in 2010 that the church should support civil unions as a compromise alternative to gay marriage. That, he was reported to have said, would allow the church could back to endow gay couples with rights - but not alter the definition of marriage or family.

The Vatican responded to the story by neither confirming nor denying the report but noting that had the Pope expressed such a view, he did so when he was a cardinal and so should not be taken as a given that this was his policy position as the Pope. 

That being said, it is impossible to imagine any of his predecessors as Pontiff speaking in the manner that Francis did during the documentary ‘Francesco’.

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God,” Francis said. 

“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 Pope has now started a conversation among the global Catholic community that much of the rest of the world has been grappling with over the past decade.

Nearly 30 countries now accept fully-fledged gay marriage as a matter of settled law. Another 20 recognise same-sex unions, if you include those who do so as a matter of common law and more than one dozen others are actively debating the issue at this time. 

But religion’s co-existence with federal legislation on this issue has always been uneasy. 

Francis’ statements have immediately uncorked a debate that religious communities world over were inevitably going to be faced with at one point or another: whether to refresh their standing on homosexuality or hew to traditional doctrines. 

The blowback to the Pope’s remarks has been instantaneous and intense. 

“The pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the church about same-sex unions,” he said in a statement,” Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island in America said. 

Ed Mechmann, the director of public policy at the Archdiocese of New York, was more succinct: the Pope had simply “made a serious mistake.”

Official church doctrine, while allowing for respect to be shown to gay people, has forbidden any actions that might be construed as condoning “deviant behaviour” or seeming to create an equivalence between a gay relationship and that of a marriage which is a union consecrated under God and between a man and a woman. 

It has long been clear that Pope Francis is a man cut from different cloth. 

His previous interventions in public debates include questioning the Christianity of Donald Trump; enjoining his fellow Catholics to turn their backs on the culture of consumer capitalism; and endorsing greater action on climate change. 

It remains to be seen whether the Pope’s sentiments will lead to reform. 

But his remarks will initiate a debate in which the Pacific is likely to play a central role. 

Since the faith's arrival in the early 19th Century, Catholicism has been an essential part of this nation's fabric.

One-in-five Samoans are Catholics and they are among the most pious on earth. 

Samoa’s church is not undergoing the same crisis faced by Catholicism and Christianity more broadly in the Western world, where an estimated 2.7 million people a year are leaving Christian lifestyles in favour of the atheistic or secular.

In 1910 only 5 per cent of the world’s Catholic population was from the Asia-Pacific.

By 2010 this figure had reached 12 per cent. And on current trends, it will only increase. 

This means that the local response to the Pope’s statement is going to carry considerable weight.

It seems like a foregone conclusion that religious leaders in the Pacific are going to oppose the Pope on what is one of religion and life’s most fundamental issues. 

One of the nation’s most prominent Catholics, Prime Minister Dr. Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, has said gay marriage will not happen so long as he is alive.  

Fiji's Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, who was educated as  Roman Catholic, has previously suggested that gay people in Fiji should “move to Iceland”.

But religious reform is and will always be a slow and generational process. 

To this day, amongst the most devout followers of the Catholic church are those who speak poorly of Pope John XXIII and the reforms he ushered in under the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

They included allowing women to no longer cover their hair while in a church; reversing the position of the altar and recognising the freedom of worship of others seem mild in comparison. 

But even those took years of preparation to pass and they remain, in some circles, contentious to this day. 

Only a man of the Pontiff’s authority could possibly have brought these issues into the daylight in Samoa and the Pacific region perhaps decades before they would otherwise rise to the surface. 

What effect these statements may have remains to be seen; but there is little to be lost from theological contemplation and debate. 

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