Pragmatism or Nuance? The Pope on Same-Sex Marriage

Pope FrancisWhen Pope Francis was elected to the Holy See, many were disappointed with his—how shall we say—less-than-tactful statements in opposition to gay marriage. But a recent article in the New York Times reports that in 2010, when Argentina’s government was debating same-sex marriage, Pope Francis (then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio) actually advocated, much to the chagrin of his fellow bishops, that the church in Argentina support civil unions for gay couples.

The authors of the NYT piece praised Francis for his pragmatic ability to compromise—not a virtue highly honored in the Catholic Church. But I wonder if there isn’t something else going on. I get it why, to someone in the news media who may not have any other categories for understanding it, advocating for civil unions might look like a compromise of the Catholic Church’s moral opposition to same-sex marriage. But, as many of us have been trying to point out, there is a distinct difference between the Christian sacrament of marriage and what states do with tax codes, property law and adoption rights. Is it possible that, instead of compromising his morals, Cardinal Bergoglio was acting out of a nuanced theological position that locates the biblical prescription for marriage in the ecclesiological/sacramental practice, rather than in some ethereal natural law theology?

I really don’t know. But I cannot help but wonder.



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2 responses to “Pragmatism or Nuance? The Pope on Same-Sex Marriage

  1. Guess who?

    I think that would be, at least for most, too little too late. The concept which we’ve talked about before of separating the word marriage from the legal institution of the same name is not only nigh impossible but it’s also completely impractical.

    We’ve developed in this nation for a few hundred years where these two different things (the holy sacrament and the legal right) were linked in a profound way. Now what we are being told is that actually the religious sacrament wants to take back the word that they’ve let the rest of us use for years and years and doesn’t want to play ball anymore.

    At that point we are making the most literally semantic argument ever. It’s an argument over who owns the right to use the word marriage. It isn’t a compromise to say, “marriage is OUR word, you can’t have it!” and then shut the conversation off. Because being realistic no one is or has ever threatened forcing members of a religious institution to obey government rules when performing weddings. In fact no one is arguing that we expect churches to recognize weddings which they have moral objection to. If the Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that only two Eastern Orthodox Christians can be married then I’m a-okay with that. If they want to have marriages vetted by the Very Reverend Father Homophobe before hand then I have no problem with that either.

    That is exactly what we already have. Churches which are completely autonomous and can use whatever criteria that they wish to use before performing a wedding. But now we are also being told that they would like to either dictate that criteria to the rest of us or at the very least take back their word so that no one else can have it.

    Words change meanings. Marriage no longer can be defined as a religious sacrament, but it now must be defined as a legal right and status. Trying to push a civil union message is at the very best being a sore loser and at the very worst and most likely it’s simply another way to cause unequal rights for people of a different system of beliefs.

  2. Joe

    Well, I certainly can’t speak for the pope—just speculating a bit. But for me it’s really not a semantic argument. I think it’s important to understand that, no matter how much they’ve been conflated historically, there really is a distinct difference between these two social practices. (And actually their history together is not even as long as one might expect). It’s important for both sides, really, but as a Christian I’m particularly concerned to tell my brothers and sisters that they’re fighting this battle on the wrong front, and causing a lot of unnecessary pain the process. We can debate amongst ourselves about the meaning and practice of the sacrament. But we really have to stop using the same arguments with regard to what governments decide to do with tax codes and property rights. In the realm of politics, it seems to me, the Christian must to root her arguments in the imago dei and, as such, should be among the loudest proponents of equal rights for all people.

    I say my argument isn’t merely semantic, because really I don’t care what the state decides to call whatever it is they do. It would be sort of handy, if we’re trying to make clear the distinction between these two social practices, to use different names for them. And to be honest, I’m not sure why the state would want to use a religious term like “marriage” anyway. But then again, when we enlisted the state to support our sacramental practice, we sort of ceded the right to sole use of the term. That’s fine by my. And I know why it matters to some folks. “Marriage” seems to bestow some sort of honor that union doesn’t. I get it, I do. And I want my LGBT friends to be honored, not just to have equal rights. After all, as I said, my argument in the political sphere is rooted in the notion that all people are created in the image of God, not in some liberal protection of rights. I just happen to believe that governments don’t actually have the ability to bestow honor upon things like that. But if it matters to folks, then it’s important. So, if we need the term marriage for both practices, then lets use it. Lets just be clear that we’re talking about two different things.

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