ROME – Chile’s president surprised friends and foes on Wednesday, when during his last remarks to Congress before his coalition government ends in March 2022, he asked legislators to treat with “urgency” a project to legalize gay marriage.

“I think that the time has come for equal marriage in our country,” said the right-wing President Sebastián Piñera. The bill, presented to Congress in 2017 by his predecessor, the left-wing Michelle Bachelet, has been collecting dust ever since.

“All people, regardless of their sexual orientation, will be able to live, love and form a family with all the protection and dignity they need and deserve,” the Catholic president said.

His request for legislators to treat this project with “urgency” goes beyond mere phrasing, as it allows speeding up the process of initiatives in Congress.

In a message released Wednesday afternoon, the Chilean bishops conference acknowledges that “no one doubts that Chile is living a complex time that demands the best of each one of us,” alluding to the referendum earlier this year that called for the re-writing of the country’s constitution.

“The deep health crisis caused by the pandemic and its economic, social and emotional consequences has placed large groups of Chileans in extreme precariousness, and they expect from their authorities measures and decisive actions to help, especially for the benefit of the most vulnerable,” the bishops wrote.

The prelates then note that in this context “of great expectation about how we will continue to face the pandemic and its effects,” Piñera set the priorities for the final months of his presidency – he cannot be reelected – including what they describe as “the so-called equal marriage law.”

“Those of us who follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and are guided by his teaching, hold the certainty that the marriage established and willed by God is only between a man and a woman, a communion that gives birth to life and is the foundation of the family,” the bishops write, before quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church to summarize the Church’s teaching on the matter: “the vocation to marriage is inscribed in the very nature of man and woman, as they came from the hand of the Creator.”

In their statement, the bishops also quote Pope Francis’s 2016 Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, in which the pope writes that there is “no basis for assimilating or establishing analogies, even remote ones, between homosexual unions and God’s plan for marriage and the family.”

The Church’s teaching on marriage, the Chilean prelates write, does not contradict its conviction that “every person, regardless of his or her sexual orientation, is to be respected in his or her dignity and welcomed with respect, avoiding all signs of unjust discrimination.”

They bishops also defended the preposition that same-sex couples having their rights protected through national legislations that grant “persons who decide to live together” recognition.

To date, same-sex marriage is legal in a handful of Latin American countries: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Uruguay, and several states in Mexico. Chile allows for civil unions.

Chile, once a predominantly Catholic and conservative country – civil divorce was only made legal in 2008 – has been undergoing a rapid process of secularization that has accelerated in the past three years, when a series of clerical sexual abuse scandals made the news.

Among the many Chilean prelates accused of wrongdoing is the president’s own uncle, the late Archbishop Bernardino Piñera, who served as Archbishop of Serena from 1983-1990 after previously serving as Bishop of Temuco. At the time of his death in June of last year, he was being investigated by the Vatican over allegations that he sexually abused a minor 50 years ago.

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Soon after the Vatican’s embassy in Chile announced the archbishop was being investigated, the president said: “As a nephew, I find it hard to believe because I know his behavior, his attitude over a lifetime, and I find it hard to believe a complaint that is made against a man who’s 103 years old today, over an alleged event that occurred 50 years ago.”

The president attended his funeral together with his wife, but made no comments at the time.

Wednesday’s announcement by Piñera surprised even his own coalition, as same-sex marriage was not currently on the public agenda in Chile, it was never part of his government program.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma