What, exactly, does Pope Francis believe about same-sex love?

Earlier this week, a short video was released in which Pope Francis said that gay people “have a right to a family,” and then expressed his support for civil unions. These clips from the forthcoming documentary "Francesco" prompted outrage in some quarters and tears of joy in others. Although the clips have been much-misinterpreted, they still represent real shifts in the Vatican’s approach to gay people — and the misinterpretations may reveal a truth even deeper than what the pope actually said.

I belong to the tiny community of LGBT Catholics who accept the church’s sexual ethic. Our obedience requires sacrifice, and often deep spiritual struggle, but we believe this is the way God has given us to serve him with our bodies. Alongside some heterosexual Christians, we are rediscovering forms of non-sexual love. Anything the pope says on this topic is of great importance to us, and it’s especially important to understand it in context.

The pope’s words on “a right to a family” were widely interpreted as meaning movement toward a right to gay marriage. However, this would be at odds with many statements in which the pope has defined “family” as man, woman and children. His encyclical Amoris Laetitia, or “The Joy of Love,” even quoted approvingly the argument that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be … even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” His ongoing support for civil unions has been as an alternative to gay marriage, not a bridge toward it.

In context, especially listening to the rest of the clip, it seems the pope is discussing gay people’s family of origin, rebuking parents who reject their gay children. This, too, is a note he has repeatedly sounded. In 2018 he used language almost identical to that heard in this latest video: “That [gay] son and daughter has a right to family. ... Do not throw them out of [the] family.” In 2013, he famously asked, “If [gay people] accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” And in 2016, the pope said the church owes gay people an apology.

A generation of gay kids grew up in Catholic churches where gay people were defined as political enemies, not family members and fellow Christians. They heard only condemnation from the church, without the humility which might have allowed the church to guide them. And many Catholic priests and other leaders still assume that gay people’s biggest spiritual problem is lust, when in my experience the most common and deadly spiritual problem for gay Christians is despair.

This gets to the heart of Francis’s message. Rejection by Catholic parents can shatter a child’s trust in God. By speaking for the worth of gay children, whom he calls in the new documentary “children of God,” Francis hopes to restore that trust.

The pope and I both affirm the Catholic doctrine that sex is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. And yet I know that the longing for gay marriage is also longing for home, care, devotion, commitment; for love that doesn’t shrink from sacrifice. Scripture and Christian history offer guidance for these longings. Catholic teaching forbids same-sex marriage but not same-sex love — in the covenant of David and Jonathan, in the promises of Ruth and Naomi, in the vows of friendship taken by Western Christian pairs, in godparenting relationships and even in intentional communities such as the Catholic Worker, we see forms of love and kinship that don’t require marriage or sex.

So no, the pope does not support gay marriage; those who believe these latest clips indicate a change of his stance will be disappointed. But many people wanted the pope to talk about gay people’s own longing to form a family because they hunger for some acknowledgment that being gay is about more than sexual desire. What surprised and delighted many gay people, both outside and within the church, was the possibility that he would speak about our longings in positive terms.

Those of us who seek to obey the Catholic teaching have had to learn, with more hindrance than help from our hierarchy, how to express our longings for love and home in harmony with our faith. We’ve been taught a catechism of “no.” Many people who saw this short video hoped Pope Francis would at last speak to us of the “yes”: about the purpose of our longings, and the guidance the church can give.

He hasn’t yet — but I hope he will.

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