Catholic theology hasn't changed when it comes to teachings on homosexuality, but Pope Francis has now reportedly indicated that the church could eventually tolerate some forms of same-sex civil unions, specifically when it comes to issues like medical care and property ownership.
Francis affirmed the Catholic Church's opposition to same-sex marriage in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, saying that matrimony remains theologically limited to one man and one woman.
But the pope also seemed to note that civil unions provide some financial stability for couples, mentioning both health care and property rights as guarantees that come as a result of certain civil unions.
Pope Francis greets the faithful as he leaves St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)
As Catholic News Service reported, the pope said that moves to "regulate diverse situations of cohabitation [are] driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care."
"We have to look at different cases and evaluate them in their variety," Francis said.
Though by no means an open endorsement of non-marital civil unions, it was certainly not an overt rejection of the paradigm. At the very least, Francis' words appear to leave the door open to the possibility that the church could support certain legal agreements between same-sex individuals.
"The president of the Pontifical Council for the Family said in February 2013 that some legal arrangements are justifiable to protect the inheritance rights of nonmarried couples," Catholic News Service reported. "But until now, no pope has indicated even tentative acceptance of civil unions."
This is not the first time Francis' views about civil unions have taken center stage. In January, the Vatican hit back against headlines that seemed to indicate the pope was supportive of same-sex unions in Italy, and last year, reports in CNN and the New York Times highlighted claims that the pope had previously endorsed same-sex unions.
Last year, Marcelo Marquez, an activist and a former theology professor at a Catholic college, said that the then-cardinal, formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, phoned him in 2010 to tell him about his support for civil unions.
“He told me. … ‘I’m in favor of gay rights and in any case, I also favor civil unions for homosexuals, but I believe that Argentina is not yet ready for a gay marriage law,’” Marquez told CNN.
The phone conversation purportedly unfolded after Marquez sent a letter to Argentina’s Catholic leaders, decrying their handling of the gay marriage debate in the country. Less than an hour later, the activist said that the then-bishop called him to discuss the matter.
A former pastor in Buenos Aires, Andres Albertsen, also claimed that Francis once used similar language to describe his stance on civil unions. In a private meeting, he told CNN, the pontiff, prior to becoming pope, was candid.
“In this conversation that we had, he showed himself to be very open, very frank with me,” Albertsen said. “He told me that he would have accepted a civil union.”
Pope Francis greets couples gathered in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)
In contrast to these claims, Francis has made many public claims against same-sex marriage in the past, though he has delivered compassionate statements about priests with same-sex attraction and homosexuality more generally.
Francis also addressed a number of other controversial issues in the Corriere della Sera interview, including contraception, the church's ban on divorced Catholics receiving holy communion and the role of women in ministry, stressing the importance of deep reflection on all issues.
He acknowledged that the sex abuse scandal has left many people "wounded," though he defended the church's record of taking action after allegations of abuse spread.
And as for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, rather than pursuing a shuttered life, it seems Francis has decided that it is important to include him in church activities, calling Benedict a "wise grandfather."
"The pope emeritus is not a statue in a museum," Francis said. "I thought about grandparents who with their wisdom, their advice, strengthen families and don't deserve to end up in an old folks home."