Pope Francis, Civil Unions, and Moral Truth

Oct 28, 2020 by

by Ryan T Anderson and Robert P George, Public Discourse:

More deeply understanding the truth about marriage and human sexuality will help all of us flourish. And that is what a pastor like Pope Francis desires. We can understand—indeed we share—the frustration of our fellow Catholics with the ways in which the Holy Father conducts interviews and the ways in which the media distorts them, but we must not do anything to undermine the truth that sets us free.

Moral truths are what they are. Human beings can fail to grasp them. They can defy them even if they do grasp them—people have free will. Human beings cannot, however, change them.

Catholics believe that the Church is a reliable teacher of moral truth and that when it teaches something definitively (by its own explicit criteria for “definitive” teachings), it is, by the grace of God, protected from teaching moral error. Under certain circumstances, the pope can do so in the name of the Church. By the Church’s own understanding of morality and truth, however, the Church herself cannot—and the pope cannot—make what is inherently morally wrong permissible. It—and he—cannot change moral truth. Nor can the Church—or the pope—change teachings about moral truth (or other matters of faith) on which the Church has taught definitively.

Last week, as a result of reports of comments by Pope Francis that are evidently contained in a video biography of the pope, the media were filled with stories of the Pope changing, or planning to change, Catholic teaching about morality—if not changing morality itself—on matters that have long been the subjects of definitive teachings of the Church. The subject was the one on which the Church’s teaching is most dramatically at odds with the dogmas of contemporary secular progressivism—sexuality and marriage. The pope endorsed, we were told, “same-sex civil unions,” thus overturning the historic Catholic teaching that sex outside the bond of marriage, considered as the conjugal union of husband and wife, is in principle immoral, as well as the longstanding teaching that homosexual inclinations, inasmuch as they are not ordered to the unitive and procreative good of marriage, are intrinsically disordered. Sexual progressives—including those identifying as Catholic—cheered. Traditionalists booed.

It has now become clear that the Pope’s remarks were made back in 2019. And while we still don’t have the full context (and it appears that the documentary maker spliced and diced several different quotes from the pope to make them appear as if they formed one single quotation), there is a plausible interpretation of Pope Francis’s comments under which they are consistent with historic Catholic teaching and moral reality.

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