I wish we had domestic partnerships then. But the people we cared for, the people whom we offered a final place to rest and die, lacked even the most basic legal protections for same-sex couples. Before and after the AIDS crisis, powerful forces such as the Christian churches lobbied against any effort to create institutions within the secular state that would protect lives and loves that did not reflect the divinely ordained heteronormative order of the sexes.
In this light, it is tempting to read Pope Francis’s recent call for “a civil union law” as a sign that things are improving. But that enthusiasm is ultimately unwarranted. Francis’s seemingly new position is nothing of the kind; to the contrary, it is entirely in keeping with a stance he’s been pushing for years. But, more importantly, the seeming radicalism of his position is built on a far more conservative foundation, one that continues to hold down too many of those who live under the dictates of Catholic doctrine.
Being able to visit your lover in the hospital, taking care of her body, being able to intertwine your life legally and economically — these were the protections many gays and lesbians have long wanted from their governments and that many still hope for in profoundly Catholic and authoritarian nations, like Poland. In an interview from 2014, Pope Francis noted that countries could make these rights available to those living “diverse forms” of unions and that the church would be willing to assess those legal forms on a case-by-case basis. At the time, however, he prefaced this by reiterating that marriage is only the union of a man and a woman.
It was not the first time he had invoked such a distinction. Indeed, when Argentina was on the cusp of providing marriage rights to same-sex couples in 2010, Francis — then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — had choice words for the supporters of those rights. They were inspired by the “Father of Lies” a.k.a. Satan. And in his much praised exhortation “The Joy of Love,” Francis makes clear that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
According to Francis’s argument, loving the love of your life until the bitter end of a horrific death is not remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage. It has nothing to tell us about how we should order family life, because something is missing in same-sex unions. This something is not children, since infertile heterosexual couples can fulfill God’s plan. What is missing is the presence of one penis and one vagina in the holy matrimonial union, or the structure of “gender complementarity” as the basis for all truly functional families, fertile or not. Societies can only be successfully humane, Francis asserts, if they maintain heterosexuality as the foundational organizing principle of all social life.
The current breathless excitement about Francis’s statement is thus somewhat unwarranted, although I don’t want to downplay its strategic value for gays and lesbians living in governments in the grasp of toxic political Catholicism. On the one hand, he has said as much before, but in doing so, he has always drawn a line in the sand: At the core, he insists that the heterosexual character of all ordered social life is not to be disputed. And here he echoes his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who militates against the “ ‘trivialization’ of sexual specificity that makes every role interchangeable between man and woman.” Far from representing a break with the papal past, Francis stands in the lineage of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, defending the claim that the only love that can tell us something about the mystery of the divine is the one that reflects the divinely ordained complementarity between the sexes.
Oddly however, gender complementarity is a very recent doctrinal intervention without good precedence in the Roman Catholic corpus. Evidence for the need of women to submit to men abounds in elite Catholic teaching, but mutuality between the sexes? The word “complementarity” or related constructions do not appear in the corpus of church fathers, martyrs, council documents or the writings of doctors of the church. Instead, Vatican documents rely on a few 20th century theologians, such as Edith Stein, a favorite of John Paul II.
But if Stein is notable for the way she has been deployed in support of recent, heteronormative doctrine, her theological work might also show a way forward, the beginnings of a true dialogue. Her analysis assumes as a given the biological differences between the sexes, but derives from those differences a deeper idea into the “motherly” nature of women as such. As a nun who had vowed celibacy, Stein does not reduce this quality to biological reproduction. Feminine nature consists in an other-directedness and an ability to empathize with the other. Not all women have to be motherly in this way, according to Stein. Nor do women only have to be motherly. Far from being reductionist, she writes that no “woman is solely a woman,” and likewise, we can infer that no man is solely a man. Thus, all professions are open to women but some, more than others, are in need of the added input of the feminine, other-oriented nature, whether this is embodied in male or female forms. The perfection of society thus requires supplementing the presence of masculine with feminine nature, and vice versa. “The entire social life, public and private, could benefit from an increasing contribution of women into the manifold occupations of society,” Stein writes. Clearly, her thought is more complex than its use in the mainstream church would suggest. In fact, it is a challenge to the Roman Catholic Church, which claims to embody a perfect society. Stein’s theology of sexual differentiation would require increasing women’s contributions on every level. This requirement does not sit well with the history of gendered male control of the body of the church.
For a Catholic perspective on the rights of LGBTQ and intersex people let’s not hang on words from Francis’s lips but contemplate the lives of women more generally — gay, transgender or straight. Stein reminds me of the nuns who strong-armed the bishop overseeing Frankfurt to let them build our hospice as a home for those society discarded when they died of AIDS. To reappropriate his word in his recent encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” a text that has little to say about the perspective of women, they created a space where a love could flourish “that transcends the barriers” dividing us. Seeing their sisters and brothers dying in the streets, they drew closer to them.
So let’s not get overexcited about Francis’s willingness to graciously grant that gay and lesbian couples should have some basic protections of the law. The basic problem is that he comes to that position from a still-retrograde stance, offering acceptance only to protect other, greater exclusions. The solution, however, may be to take that foundational logic to its true conclusion, and accept that the Catholic Church could benefit from an increasing contribution of women at every level, including the papacy. That might be the path to true, lasting change for the better.