Surprise, Questions, Silence Follow Pope Francis’s Comments on Homosexuality Among New England Catholic Leaders

Printed from:

A day after Pope Francis rocked the Catholic world with the publication of comments supporting civil unions for same-sex couples, Catholic bishops in New England are reacting with questions, nuance, or silence.

“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that,” the pope says in a new film about him called Francesco, according to Catholic News Agency.

It’s a change from the policy of his predecessors, including Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II, who taught that government should not encourage homosexual relationships because same-sex sex acts are, in the Church’s words, “intrinsically disordered.”

The pope’s comments, reported Wednesday, drew swift negative reaction the same day from the Roman Catholic bishop of Providence.

“Popes John Paul and Benedict, in formal teaching said that same-sex civil unions were wrong and that Catholics had to oppose them. Pope Francis, in a movie, said that same-sex civil unions were helpful and should be promoted. So, I ask, how could there possibly be any confusion?” said Bishop Thomas Tobin, whose diocese consists of the state of Rhode Island, in a tweet Wednesday afternoon.

New England has 11 Roman Catholic dioceses. One – Springfield, covering western Massachusetts – is currently without a bishop. New Boston Post contacted the other 10 seeking comment.

The bishop of Worcester, whose diocese covers central Massachusetts, noted that the pope’s comments do not address same-sex marriage, but he called on the pope to make his position clearer than it is now.

“It is obvious that from the Holy Father’s clear and repeated teaching on the moral inadmissibility of same-sex marriage, he is not drawing a moral equivalence between same-sex marriage and civil unions. In light of the received teaching of the Church on the morally problematic nature of civil unions, I look forward to further clarification from the Holy See,” Bishop Robert McManus, bishop of Worcester, said in a written statement Thursday.

Some observers have suggested that the English translation of the pope’s comments from the original Spanish may be faulty. Others say they want to see the movie before they decide what the pope meant by what he said.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Hartford, which covers most of northern Connecticut and is led by Archbishop Leonard Blair, postponed a substantive reaction to the pope’s statements Thursday.

“Quotes from an upcoming documentary film about the life of Pope Francis had been widely reported upon yesterday. Until we have the benefit of seeing the film and the context in which the quotes are offered, we will reserve comment,” the spokesman said by email, responding to a New Boston Post query.

Bishop Christopher Coyne, the bishop of Burlington, whose diocese covers the entire state of Vermont, said it’s too soon to know what the pope meant because the quotes reported may have been taken out of context.

“One does not know what the context of the segment was, what the pope was speaking about in particular, what he said before this segment and what he said after this segment. Having very little information at this point, I choose not to interpret what the Holy Father may or may not have said and what he meant by his words,” Coyne said in a written statement Thursday. “The Church’s consistent teaching on the nature of marriage remains that it is a union between a man and a woman. The Church also teaches that all human beings are created in the likeness of God, and our brothers and sisters should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation.”

The pope’s comments do not change Church doctrine. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that sex acts are holy if they are within a marriage between a man and a woman and open to conception – and immoral if they are not. The Church teaches that sex is meant to achieve a unique union between a married man and woman and to create new life, and that any sex acts divorced from those purposes thwart the purpose of sex.

Sex acts outside of marriage or that violate the purposes of sex within marriage are defined by the Church as mortal sins if done with full knowledge and consent of the will. The Church says they violate God’s plan for human beings and lead to separation from God and unhappiness. That’s why the Church teaches that contraception, masturbation, sodomy, fornication, and adultery are immoral.

While Pope Francis’s comments don’t directly touch on Catholic doctrine, they chip away at longstanding Church policy. Church leaders, for instance, have long opposed adoption of children by same-sex couples because the relationship is considered inherently disordered and because children, according to the Church, have a right to a mother and a father.

The pope, instead, seems to accept same-sex couples with children. The documentary, according to news reports, features a homosexual man in the Diocese of Rome who says Pope Francis has encouraged him and his same-sex partner to raise their children in the Church. That suggests the pope doesn’t object to children growing up in households led by two men or by two women.

According to the BBC, the pope says in the film of homosexuals:  “They are children of God and have a right to a family.”

That statement seems to oppose the policy of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts. Catholic Charities, the charitable agency of the Archdiocese of Boston, stopped its longtime involvement with adoptions in 2006 because the state government required all entities providing adoption not to discriminate against same-sex couples. The agency decided the Church could not morally participate in sending orphans to same-sex couples.

The prime mover behind the decision was Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston.

O’Malley is often described as an ally of Pope Francis but has occasionally criticized him. O’Malley released a written statement mid-afternoon Thursday that balances Roman Catholic teaching on human sexuality with pastoral concern for homosexuals, and seeking to distinguish between same-sex civil unions and same-sex marriage.

It states in full:


Quite understandably, the Holy Father’s recent statements concerning civil unions have captured the attention of the world press, because many people are anxious for the Church to change its position on marriage and family. Pope Francis strongly and consistently teaches that marriage is between a man and woman for a lifetime and that this is God’s plan for having and raising children.

The Pope’s endorsement of civil unions is not an endorsement of homosexual activity. Just as the Church does not campaign against civil laws that allow for common-law marriage or second marriages that are not sacramental, even though such arrangements can be in violation of the laws of the Church, the Holy Father recognizes that in civil society there can be cogent reasons to enact such laws providing for civil unions which are not the same as the institution of marriage.

Pope Francis has seen civil unions as a way for governments to provide protections and health care for couples in long-term, committed relationships, whether they be siblings or friends or partners. Such arrangements are not always of a sexual nature.

The Holy Father is very aware of the suffering and alienation of homosexual individuals, gay people, who are rejected by family and society. He is also keenly aware of the parents and loved ones who also suffer because a member of their family is bullied or marginalized for being different. The demands of sexual morality are very challenging for anyone seeking to lead a life of faithful discipleship. We do not serve people well by falsely claiming that we can change the Decalogue. Our task is to show people that we love them and care about them and that together we can strive to be better people, more generous, more courageous and more faithful to what God is calling us to do.


A spokesman for the Diocese of Fall River, which covers the South Coast of Massachusetts and Cape Cod and the islands, told New Boston Post on Thursday that Bishop Edgar da Cunha has no immediate comment.

As of 3 p.m. Thursday, New Boston Post was unable to reach spokesmen for the other Roman Catholic dioceses in New England:  Portland (which includes all of Maine); Manchester (which includes all of New Hampshire); Burlington (which includes all of Vermont); Bridgeport (which includes southwestern Connecticut; and Norwich (which includes southeastern Connecticut).

Catholics who support the Church’s teachings on human life and sexuality — sometimes referred to as “orthodox Catholics” — point to Church documents that address not only the morality of same-sex sex acts but also the morality of recognizing same-sex relationships through government action. One of those is Bishop Joseph Strickland, the bishop of Tyler, Texas, who yesterday tweeted a link to a Vatican document tied to both of Pope Francis’s immediate predecessors, St. John Paul II (who was the pope at the time) and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who became Pope Benedict XVI).

“Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil,” states the document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dated June 3, 2003.

“In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty,” the document continues, calling such laws “gravely unjust.”

C.J. Doyle, executive director of Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, issued a statement Wednesday night calling Pope Francis’s comments on same-sex relationships “gravely scandalous, profoundly disappointing, and [an] utterly unprecedented departure from perennial Catholic teaching.”

“The most likely practical effect of these improvident remarks will be to create confusion about Catholic beliefs, embolden modernist revolutionaries within the Church, and vindicate bigots who condemn traditional Catholic teachings as homophobia,” Doyle said in an email message. “Sadly, faithful Catholics — particularly those in the pro-life and pro-family movements — will, once again, suffer demoralization and betrayal.”


Tom Joyce contributed to the reporting of this story.