Francis, Francesco and Civil Unions

On October 21, the documentary Francesco premiered at the Rome Film Festival.[1]  Directed by Emmy-nominated director Evgeny Afineevsky,[2] Francesco received the Kinéo Movie for Humanity Award, issued by the Italian Ministry for Culture for the promotion of “social and humanitarian themes,” the award being given in the Vatican Gardens the following day.[3]  Francesco’s thematic focuses are social justice and humanitarian improvement, with Afineevsky praising Pope Francis’ “inspired leadership” and work “in the areas of climate change, migration, refugees, peace and religious tolerance, gender and identity justice, health and economic equality.”[4]

While apparently innocuous, Francesco ignited a global furore because of two comments the Holy Father made on homosexuality and same-sex civil unions.  First, he stated, “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.”[5]  He further added, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered,” noting that he “stood up for that.”[6]

Understandably, reactions to these comments were rapid, intense, and varied.  Heterodox commentators such as Fr. James Martin hailed the Holy Father’s remarks as a milestone in the development of doctrine,[7] while faithful laymen and clergy alike were dismayed.  As Paul Darrow, a former “international fashion model, gay man and activist” who attributes his conversion to Mother Angelica, stated, the pope’s comments are particularly damaging because they are not the first on the topic, “creat[ing] confusion on top of confusion.”[8]  Darrow states that, for same-sex attracted Catholics struggling to live chastely, “Pope Francis’ comments seem to imply that our sacrifice is for no reason at all. It seems that no one cares to reach out to us and even most Catholics don’t get it.”[9]  This sentiment is echoed in other quarters, where the faithful have expressed frustration with the Holy Father, noting that “[i]f he were really as wise and compassionate as he believes himself to be, he would recognize how many of his poor children he’s leading into scandal and disbelief.”[10]

Making sense of this situation amid the confusion and pain it has generated is no easy feat for the faithful.  However, context sheds greater light on the situation.  Additionally, the principles articulated by the Second Vatican Council are pertinent in penetrating to the truth,[11] as one of the Council’s key objectives was updating the relationship of the Church and the modern world,[12] and its principles have been invoked previously in arguing against same-sex civil unions.[13]


First, it is helpful to research the director.  Evgeny Afineevsky is a Russian-born practicing Jew who emigrated first to Israel, then later the United States.[14]  Afineevsky’s stated motivation for creating Francesco was concern for the state of humanity, particularly with respect to climate change, the Syrian conflict, refugee crises, and the Rohingya genocide.[15]  Afineevsky sought to capture Pope Francis “as a human being, who can be also a role model of leadership.”[16]  Further, with the documentary’s American premiere scheduled for November 3,[17] Afineesky stated he was “not trying to do propaganda,” but “trying to show…people what they’re missing” in terms of leadership, citing division that has existed “from day one of the winning of Donald Trump.”[18]  An open homosexual,[19] Afineevsky has won an Oscar nomination for his 2015 film Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, as well as being Oscar shortlisted for his 2017 film Cries from Syria.[20]  Afineevky’s directorial debut came in 2009 with Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!!, the story of a traditional, affluent Jewish family’s son announcing his same-sex attraction.[21]  This film was poorly received,[22] and the trailer indicates low-quality production and contains pornographic material.[23]

It is also crucial to understand these quotations’ initial framework, which Afineevsky claims occurred within his interview.[24]  As they appear in Francesco, the quotations are “distinct phrases from a papal interview,” edited and presented “as a cohesive whole.”[25]  The segments in question are “shot in the same place, with the same lighting and the same appearance” as a 2019 interview with Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki.[26]  Fr. Antonio Spadaro, director of La Civiltà Cattolica, confirmed these quotations are from previously unreleased footage from Alazraki’s interview, though it remains unclear how Afineevsky obtained access to it or why he denies this.[27]  In their original context, the quotations occurred within a discussion of the integration rather than ostracization of homosexual children within their families, as well as the debate over same-sex ‘marriage’ and civil unions in Argentina in 2010.[28]

Finally, the hierarchy’s response should be examined to supply necessary context.  Despite requests from laity around the world, the Vatican has declined clarifying Pope Francis’ remarks, nor has it refuted prevailing secular interpretations.[29]  While some assert the scandal is the result of yet another mistranslation of the Holy Father, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, an Argentine who knew Cardinal Bergoglio well prior to his election, contends the English translation is “substantially equivalent” to the pope’s words in their original Spanish.[30]  What response the hierarchy has offered has been through unofficial channels.  In a Facebook post, Archbishop Franco Coppolo, apostolic nuncio to Mexico, shared a memorandum from the Vatican Secretary of State to bishops which gave the quotes’ original context within the Alazraki interview.[31]  Archbishop Fernandez clarified on Facebook that he believes Francis had in mind “close unions between people of the same sex, which do not in themselves imply sexual relations, but a very intense and stable alliance,” while Archbishop Hector Aguer recalled that Pope Francis, while Archbishop of Buenos Aires, had proposed civil unions for same-sex couples in an assembly of the Argentine episcopate convened to respond to the government’s movement to enshrine same-sex ‘marriage’ in law.[32]  Aguer states that Archbishop Bergoglio’s proposition was rejected at the time, as same-sex civil unions are a moral issue, not just a legal one.[33]  The bishops concluded they could not approve a civil law contrary to natural law, noting “this teaching has been repeatedly stated in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.”[34]


Having contextualised Pope Francis’ comments, it remains to evaluate the situation in light of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching.  The Council’s document on media, Inter Mirifica, contains relevant insights on the Pope’s comments.  While acknowledging the great benefits derived from proper use of the mass media,[35] the Council Fathers emphasise media must be employed in accordance with moral principles and with an awareness of “the entire situation or circumstances” affecting what is proper to communicate.[36]  They emphasise the grave moral responsibility of media personnel,[37] stating the principles that “the news itself that is communicated should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity,”[38] and that the hierarchy “should see to it that communications or presentations concerning religious matters are entrusted to worthy and experienced hands and are carried out with fitting reverence.”[39]

Failure to adhere to these principles is partially responsible for this scandal.  As director of Francesco, Afineevsky is culpable for manipulative and misleading editing.  For his part, the Holy Father bears responsibility for giving comments on a delicate issue which lack deliberation and can be easily misinterpreted.  The channels of communication at the Vatican are also not without fault on three accounts: they were responsible for granting Afineevsky access to the Holy Father with apparently insufficient screening; they seemingly failed to censor the documentary prior to its release; and they remained silent afterward, refusing to offer clarification when the good of souls required it.

The scandal should also be examined from the perspective of the Council’s teaching on the Magisterium.  According to Dignitatis Humanae, Christ designated His Church “the teacher of truth,” giving her leaders the “duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself.”[40] According to Lumen Gentium, levels of teaching authority can be discerned based on the nature of the communication, repetition of the subject, and the manner of its treatment.[41]  Discerning the degree of authority to assign any particular magisterial teaching, proper hermeneutics must be utilised.  According to Pope Benedict XVI in a 2005 address to the Curia, a conflict of hermeneutics continues to plague the Second Vatican Council’s legacy.[42]  On the one hand, the Hermeneutic of Rupture proposes the rejection of the Church’s tradition in favour of radical innovation in accord with the ‘Spirit of Vatican II,’ according with the mass media’s sympathies and the liberalising trend in modern theology.[43]  On the other hand, the Hermeneutic of Continuity promotes renewal in accord with tradition, “transmit[ting] the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion.”[44]

Even the casual lay observer should readily appreciate that, “[w]hile the pope’s affirmation of the dignity of all people and his call for respect of all people are rooted in Catholic teaching,” his legislative suggestions within a documentary remain personal opinion and do not fall within the pale of magisterial teaching.[45]  The informal tone of the interview further emphasises this, though the Holy Father’s repeated treatment of same-sex civil unions remains troubling.  In terms of hermeneutics, the Pope’s comments clearly accord with the Hermeneutic of Rupture.  Addressing the question of same-sex civil unions in 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger issued a document entitled Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition of Unions Between Homosexual Persons.  Drawing on the Church’s tradition and perennial philosophy, the CDF thoroughly rejected the tenability of support for same-sex civil unions.  The document states that “conscience requires that…Christians give witness to the whole moral truth, which is contradicted both by approval of homosexual acts and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons.”[46]  Echoing St. Thomas, it states that “civil law cannot contradict right reason without losing its binding force on conscience,”[47] distinguishing between “the approval or legalization of evil” and its mere toleration.[48]  It explains that such unions “are contrary to right reason because they confer legal guarantees, analogous to those granted to marriage, to unions between persons of the same sex,”[49] while these are in fact ontologically different and thus lack “the biological and anthropological elements of marriage and family” which are the basis for just “legal recognition.”[50]  As society’s foundation, marriage deserves legal recognition and protection; in creating same-sex civil unions, society fails “in its duty to promote and defend marriage as an institution essential to the common good.”[51]  Denying same-sex cohabitators the status accorded married couples “is not opposed to justice; on the contrary, justice requires it.”[52]  In conclusion, the document iterates that all must oppose legislation instituting same-sex civil unions.[53]  Given the strength of this magisterially-grounded condemnation, it is clear that the Holy Father’s comment on the necessity for a same-sex civil unions law is a lamentable example of the Hermeneutic of Rupture, regardless of whether taken in context or not.

Finally, the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the roles of bishops and the pope provides further material for analysis.  On the role of bishops, Lumen Gentium states that, by virtue of the sacramental grace and character conferred in episcopal ordination, “bishops in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and that they act in His Person.”[54] Their primary role is that of teaching,[55] a duty given by Christ and exercised in His Name.[56]  As teachers, bishops are tasked with “vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock,”[57] entrusted as they are with safeguarding the revealed truth necessary for salvation.[58]  In doing so, they must “present Christian doctrine in a manner adapted to the needs of the times…respond[ing] to the difficulties and questions by which people are especially burdened and troubled.”[59]  Christus Dominus further notes that episcopal teaching should be “noted for clarity of speech as well as humility and mildness in order that all times truth may be joined to charity and understanding with love.”[60]

Concerning the pope’s role, Lumen Gentium notes the Holy Father is the principle of unity of the entire Church,[61] enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal authority over the care of souls by divine institution.”[62]  To his regular teaching, the faithful owe “religious submission of mind and will,”[63] showing veneration for his office “even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.”[64]


In light of the Council’s teaching, the Holy Father’s pronouncements on same-sex civil unions represent a failure in his execution of his duties as both bishop and pope.  Whether taken in context or out of context, his comment on same-sex civil unions marks a break from the Church’s constant teaching, endangering souls by undervaluing the truth necessary for salvation and undermining the faith of the faithful.  Pope Francis’ comments are particularly damaging because he is reinforcing the errors of the age rather than proposing the truth as antidote to them.[65]  As the Church’s principle of unity, when Pope Francis propounds a personal opinion which is contrary to the truth, he gravely damages this unity, making it difficult for the majority of laymen to distinguish between the pronouncements of the person holding the office and his teaching as the holder of a personal office entrusted to him by Christ.

It might be argued that the Holy Father’s comments can also be justified on the grounds of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching, as Ad Gentes states that “Christian charity truly extends to all, without distinction of race, creed, or social condition.”[66] Further, Gaudium et Spes adds that “with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent,”[67] while Unitatis Redintegratio makes the firm assertion that the presentation of the Faith must never be an impediment to dialogue.[68]

However, this would be an erroneous application of the Council’s principles.  Elsewhere in Unitatis Redintegratio, the Council Fathers state that “[i]t is…essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety” and that truth cannot be sacrificed for any reason.[69]  Gaudium et Spes reiterates this point, stating that “love and good will…must in no way render us indifferent to truth and goodness” – speaking truth is an act of Christian charity, but must be always done such that sinner and sin are distinguished, respecting the “dignity of being a person.”[70]  Thus, the case against the Holy Father’s proposal for same-sex civil unions derived from Council principles stands.


In conclusion, faced with the turmoil this situation has generated in Christ’s Mystical Body, the world, and individual souls, the faithful must remember that personal failings to live in Christ’s truth are what ultimately “conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God.”[71]  The Office of Peter is a weighty one – far heavier than any man can bear unaided by the Holy Ghost – and its current possessor has a great demand on the prayers and sacrifices of his spiritual children throughout the world.  In the spirit of the Hermeneutic of Continuity and in accord with the principles articulated by the Second Vatican Council, they should strive to understand why he has proposed the solution he has, for all must continue to heed the call to show charity toward their fellow men.  However, they cannot approve his legislative ‘solution,’ for to do so would be to depart from Christ’s truth.  As members of society, the faithful must recall that “[t]he well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family.”[72]  They must defend and promote marriage and the family within their spheres of influence, rooted as these are in human nature, the mystery of which is only illuminated “in the mystery of the incarnate Word,” Who has “united Himself in some fashion with every man.”[73]  It is through greater personal conversion and unity with Him that every member of the Church, from the Holy Father to every member of the laity, will grow as witnesses to Christ in the modern world.



Ad Gentes. Vatican, December 7, 1965.

Benedict XVI. “Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia Offering Them His

Christmas Greetings.” Vatican, December 22, 2005.

Brockhaus, Hannah. “Francesco director receives film award in Vatican Gardens.” Catholic

News Agency, October 22, 2020.

Carey, Matthew. “Evgeny Afineevsky’s On His ‘Francesco’ Documentary That Made

Worldwide Headlines With Pope Francis’ Comments About LGBT Unions.” Deadline,

October 21, 2020.

Christus Dominus. Vatican, October 28, 1965.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal

Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons.” Vatican, June 3, 2003.

Davies, M. W. “Where Pope Francis Leads, We Can’t Follow.” Crisis Magazine, October 22,


Dei Verbum. Vatican, November 18, 1965.

Dignitatis Humanae. Vatican, December 7, 1965.

“Evgeny Afineevsky.” Wikipedia, last modified November 22, 2020.

Ferrisi, Sabrina. “Same-Sex Attracted Catholics Decry Papal Comments on Same-Sex Unions.”

National Catholic Register, November 6, 2020.

Francesco: About the Film.”, October 21, 2020.

“‘Francesco’: new documentary on the life and teaching of Pope Francis.” Vatican News,

October 21, 2020.

Francesco (2020 film).” Wikipedia, last modified November 3, 2020.

Gaudium et Spes. Vatican, December 7, 1965.

Inter Mirifica. Vatican, December 4, 1963.

Lumen Gentium. Vatican, November 21, 1964.

Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!!Wikipedia, last modified July 8, 2020.!_My_Son_Is_Gay!!.

“Pope Francis Homosexuality Comments Heavily Edited in Documentary, No Vatican Comment

on Civil Unions.” Catholic News Agency, October 22, 2020.

“Questions emerge regarding Pope Francis’ statement on same-sex civil unions.” Catholic News

Agency, October 22, 2020.

Stannus, Jane. “Where Are You Going, Peter?” Crisis Magazine, October 26, 2020.

“Vatican Secretariat of State Provides Context of Pope Francis Civil Union Remark.” National

Catholic Register, November 2, 2020.

Unitatis Redintegratio. Vatican, November 21, 1964.

“What did Pope Francis Say About Civil Unions? A CNA Explainer.” Catholic News Agency,

October 22, 2020.


[1]Francesco (2020 film),” Wikipedia, last modified November 3, 2020,

[2]Francesco: About the Film,”, October 21, 2020,

[3] “‘Francesco’: new documentary on the life and teaching of Pope Francis.” Vatican News,

October 21, 2020,; Matthew Carey, “Evgeny Afineevsky’s On His ‘Francesco’ Documentary That Made Worldwide Headlines With Pope Francis’ Comments About LGBT Unions.” Deadline, October 21, 2020,

[4]Francesco: About the Film.”

[5] “What did Pope Francis Say About Civil Unions? A CNA Explainer,” Catholic News Agency, October 22, 2020,

[6] “What did Pope Francis Say About Civil Unions?”

[7] M. W. Davis, “Where Pope Francis Leads, We Can’t Follow,” Crisis Magazine, October 22,


[8] Sabrina Ferrisi, “Same-Sex Attracted Catholics Decry Papal Comments on Same-Sex Unions,”

National Catholic Register, November 6, 2020,

[9] Ferrisi, “Same-Sex Attracted Catholics Decry Papal Comments.”

[10] Davis, “Where Pope Francis Leads.”

[11] It is noteworthy that this particular scandal is inconceivable in the pre-Conciliar Church.  First, the pontiffs had a much smaller media presence in that era, but they also appear to have been much more cautious and deliberate in their public pronouncements.

[12] Benedict XVI, “Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greetings,” Vatican, December 22, 2005,

[13] This was the case in the 2010 debate surrounding ‘marriage equality’ and civil unions in Argentina, in which the Argentine bishops’ conference rejected Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio’s proposal for same-sex civil unions as an alternative for same-sex marriage (“Vatican Secretariat of State Provides Context of Pope Francis Civil Union Remark,” National Catholic Register, November 2, 2020,

[14] Carey, “Evgeny Afineevsky On His ‘Francesco’ Documentary”; “Evgeny Afineevsky,” Wikipedia, last modified November 22, 2020,

[15] Carey, “Evgeny Afineevsky On His ‘Francesco’ Documentary.”

[16] Carey, “Evgeny Afineevsky On His ‘Francesco’ Documentary.”

[17] The American election was held the following day.

[18] Carey, “Evgeny Afineevsky On His ‘Francesco’ Documentary.”  It is unclear how this is not propaganda at some level.

[19] “Evgeny Afineevsky.”

[20] Carey, “Evgeny Afineevsky On His ‘Francesco’ Documentary.”

[21]Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!!Wikipedia, last modified July 8, 2020,!_My_Son_Is_Gay!!.

[22] For example, the reviewing site IMDb assigns it a ration of 5.0/10.0.

[23] The trailer can be found at

[24] “Questions Emerge Regarding Pope Francis’ Statement on Same-Sex Civil Unions,” Catholic News

Agency, October 22, 2020,

[25] “Pope Francis Homosexuality Comments Heavily Edited in Documentary, No Vatican Comment on Civil Unions,” Catholic News Agency, October 22, 2020,

[26] “Pope Francis Homosexuality Comments”; “Questions Emerge.”

[27] “Pope Francis Homosexuality Comments”; “Questions Emerge.”

[28] “Pope Francis Homosexuality Comments.”  This source provides thorough analysis and the original text of Pope Francis’ comments with the excerpts appearing in Francesco bolded.

[29] “Pope Francis Homosexuality Comments.”

[30] “Pope Francis Homosexuality Comments.”  In Spanish, Pope Francis refers to a “ley de convicencia civil” – a civil union law (“Vatican Secretariat”).

[31] “Vatican Secretariat.”

[32] “Vatican Secretariat.”

[33] “Vatican Secretariat.”

[34] “Vatican Secretariat.”

[35] Inter Mirifica, Vatican, December 4, 1963,, 2.

[36] Inter Mirifica, 4.

[37] Inter Mirifica, 11.

[38] Inter Mirifica, 5.

[39] Inter Mirifica, 11.

[40] Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican, December 7, 1965,, 14.

[41] Lumen Gentium, Vatican, November 21, 1964,, 25.

[42] Benedict XVI, “Address.”

[43] Benedict XVI, “Address.”

[44] Benedict XVI, “Address.”

[45] “What did Pope Francis Say”; Jane Stannus, “Where Are You Going, Peter?” Crisis Magazine, October 26, 2020,

[46] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons,” Vatican, June 3, 2003,, 5.

[47] CDF, “Considerations,” 6; cf Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1981), I-II, q. 96, a. 4 co.

[48] CDF, “Considerations,” 5.

[49] CDF, “Considerations,” 6.

[50] CDF, “Considerations,” 7.

[51] CDF, “Considerations,” 6.

[52] CDF, “Considerations,” 8.

[53] CDF, “Considerations,” 10.  However, drawing on Evangelium Vitae 73, the document does state that a civil union law might be supported insofar as it restricts the damage done by a pre-existing, more liberal law, but that Catholic politicians must make their intention clear when supporting such a law – they are not condoning evil but trying to limit it by whatever means possible.

[54] Lumen Gentium, 21.

[55] As Lumen Gentium notes, preaching should hold “an eminent place” among episcopal duties (25), while Christus Dominus notes it should be “conspicuous among the principal duties of bishops” (12).

[56] Dei Verbum. Vatican, November 18, 1965,, 10.

[57] Lumen Gentium, 25.

[58] Christus Dominus, Vatican, October 28, 1965,, 12.

[59] Christus Dominus, 13.

[60] Christus Dominus, 13.

[61] Lumen Gentium, 23.

[62] Christus Dominus, 2; cf Lumen Gentium, 22.

[63] The Latin phrase found in Lumen Gentium is “religioso animi obsequio.

[64] Lumen Gentium, 25.

[65] C.S. Lewis makes a brilliant point in emphasising the importance of reading ‘old books’ – these were written in a different era than and are steeped in its particular zeitgeist, thus serving as a counterbalance for contemporary errors (  This is the Church’s constant role: To proclaim the truth in every era, particularly to counteract each consecutive period’s own unique overemphasis by drawing on her  tradition to bring men to the truth.  Whatever his strengths as a witness to contemporary man, Francis regrettably seems often to reinforce the overemphasised points of contemporary culture.

[66] Ad Gentes, Vatican, December 7, 1965,, 12; cf Gaudium et Spes, Vatican, December 7, 1965,, 28.

[67] Gaudium et Spes, 29.

[68] Unitatis Redintegratio, Vatican, November 21, 1964,, 11.

[69] Unitatis Redintegratio, 11.

[70] Gaudium et Spes, 28.

[71] Gaudium et Spes, 19.

[72] Gaudium et Spes, 47.

[73] Gaudium et Spes, 22.