ROME – A letter sent from the Vatican to bishops’ conferences around the world seeking to explain the Pope Francis’s recent remarks on civil unions has argued that the pope’s words taken out of context and that his position does not constitute a change in Church teaching on the issue.
Released in late October, the documentary “Francesco” by Russian filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky includes a 20-second clip of the pope saying homosexual individuals “have the right to be in a family. They are children of God.”
“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 says in the clip.
However, after his apparent backing of civil unions exploded in international media, doubt began to arise over the origins of the interview during which those comments were made.
In a fiasco that has since been dubbed “Moviegate,” it was established that the pope’s remarks were not made in a new interview given to Afineevsky for the documentary, as Afineevsky claimed, but that they actually came from a 2019 interview with Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki.
The relevant portion wasn’t released at the time because the Vatican controlled the cameras and the editing of the tape for Alazraki’s interview, and when it got back to her, the bit on civil unions was not included.
In the wake of the media firestorm that ensued, with some outlets accusing the pope of deviating from Church doctrine and others celebrating an alleged new open-door policy to gay couples, the Vatican communications department issued an Oct. 22 internal memo instructing all staff to refrain from reporting on the issue, and insisting that a review was underway “to deal with the media crisis.”
To date, the Vatican has not issued any statement clarifying the incident or the pope’s remarks, making the letter to nuncios the first known response to the episode.
According to papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, who tweeted the full Spanish translation of the letter, it was sent from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State to bishops’ conferences around the world through their ambassadors Oct. 30 in order to provide clarity on the pope’s remarks about civil unions during the “Francesco” documentary.
Vatican’s Secretariat of State writes to bishops of the world (via nuncios) to brief them on Pope’s civil unions remarks, to show that they refer to “particular arrangements of the state” in respect of same-sex couples, and do not touch on “church doctrine”.
— Austen Ivereigh (@austeni) November 1, 2020
Titled, “To help understand some of the expressions of the pope in the documentary, Francesco,” the letter says its intent is to offer “useful points of clarification” about the pope’s words and insists that it was sent “per his instruction.”
The letter goes on to provide background on the incident, saying that over a year ago Pope Francis was asked during an interview “two different questions at two different times that, in the aforementioned documentary, were edited and published as a single answer without the proper contextualization, which has generated confusion.”
Pointing to the pope’s assertion in the film that “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it,” the letter said this statement was a reference “to the pastoral need that, within the family, a son or daughter with a homosexual orientation should never be discriminated against.”
A reference was then made to paragraph 250 of Francis’s 2016 post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which states that “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence.”
Families whose members include individuals with same-sex attraction, the paragraph continues, “should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.”
The letter then went on to explain that the pope’s remarks about civil cohabitation were made in response to a separate question about “a ten-year-old local law in Argentina on ‘marriage equality of same-sex couples’ and his opposition to them as the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires in this regard.”
On this point, the letter said Pope Francis in the interview insisted that “’it is an incongruity to speak of homosexual marriage,’ adding that – in that in the same context – he had spoken about the rights of these people to have certain legal protection.”
This, the letter said, is the context for the pope’s statement in the documentary that “What we have to have is a civil union (convivencia civil) law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”
Quoting a 2014 interview Pope Francis gave to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, as proof of the pope’s backing of traditional marriage between a man and a woman, the letter said, “Marriage is between a man and a woman.”
“Secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of cohabitation, pushed by the demand to regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring health care. It is about pacts of cohabitating of various natures, of which I wouldn’t know how to list the different ways. One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety,” the pope said in the 2014 interview.
The Vatican’s letter to bishops closes insisting that given the background, “it is clear that Pope Francis was referring to certain provisions made by states, and certainly not to the doctrine of the Church, which he has reaffirmed numerous times over the years.”
Although several bishops’ conferences have confirmed receiving the letter, it was unsigned and was not printed on official letterhead, which officials in these bishops’ conferences found strange for a document from the Secretariat of State.
It is unknown who ordered the letter to be written, who sent it, if Pope Francis is aware, and if, as the letter claims, it was in fact the pope who asked that a clarification be made.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen