Whereas his predecessor, Benedict XVI, strongly condemned gay lifestyles — calling them an “intrinsic moral evil” — Francis has struck a different tone, both before and after assuming his role in 2013.
But Francis this week made an official step back from offering any form of official church support for the same-sex unions, dashing the hopes of many liberal Catholics.
Here are some of his remarks on this issue over the past decade.
“Every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.” (2010)
In a book first published in 2010, Francis — then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — made some of his first widely circulated public comments on same-sex marriage, saying that he opposed it, along with the right of same-sex couples to adopt children.
“Every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity,” he wrote, according to the Catholic News Agency.
His latest comments, reported on Wednesday, do not contradict these views. Francis vehemently opposed same-sex marriage, but he also signaled an early openness to civil unions or similar paths to legal status for same-sex couples, according to the Religion News Service and other accounts.
He pushed back against the Argentine government when it pushed to legalize same-sex marriage. “Let’s not be naive. This isn’t a simple political fight, it’s an attempt to destroy God’s plan,” he wrote in the run-up to the bill’s approval, Reuters reported.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” (2013)
Francis’s views on LGBT issues moved into the international spotlight after he became the 266th pope in March 2013.
Whereas Pope John Paul II had condemned a gay rights march in Rome just 13 years earlier as an “offense to Christian values,” Francis made global headlines in July 2013 for saying of gay priests: “Who am I to judge?”
When Time Magazine made Francis “Person of the Year” in 2013, it noted that the comment had “come to define both the promise and the limits of Francis’ papacy.”
Francis’s steps to reach out to LGBT people did not constitute a fundamental shift in church teaching, Time noted. During the same conversation with reporters, Francis suggested that gay acts remained sins, the BBC reported.
The change in rhetoric, Time concluded, may have the largest impact “in many developing countries, where homophobia is institutionalized, widespread and sanctioned.”
“One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.” (2014)
The following year, Francis made what were then his most controversial remarks on the issue, framing same-sex civil unions as a rational demand while making a clear distinction between legal recognition and marriage.
In an interview with Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, Francis said that “marriage is between a man and a woman,” but added that “secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of cohabitation, pushed by the demand to regulate economic aspects between people, such as ensuring health care.”
“One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety,” Francis concluded, according to a translation by the Catholic News Agency.
The remarks were seen by some as offering explicit approval for same-sex civil unions, but the Vatican rejected that narrative.
“Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.” (2015)
In subsequent public remarks, Francis continued to walk a tightrope between the hopes of liberal supporters and the expectations of conservative members of the church.
Though Francis lamented the church’s seeming obsession with hot-button social issues shortly after becoming pope, those themes loomed large when he addressed the U.S. Congress in 2015.
“It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme,” he said. “I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”
“I would never say that silence is the answer; to ignore a son or daughter with a homosexual tendency is not good parenthood.” (2018)
Onboard a flight from Dublin to Rome in 2018, Francis echoed his earlier emphasis on conventional Catholic teachings on the family, but encouraged Catholics to show compassion to people with a “homosexual tendency,” including family members.
“Pray. Don’t condemn,” Francis said, according to a Vatican transcript, adding: “And if you, as a father or mother, can’t deal with this on your own, ask for help, but always in dialogue, always in dialogue. Because that son and daughter has a right to family, and their family is this family, just as it is.”
“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.” (2020)
In a documentary released last year, Francis called for the creation of civil union laws. The comment, drawn from unaired footage filmed in 2019, marked his clearest support to date for the rights of same-sex couples, breaking with the official teaching of the Catholic Church.
But the details of the remarks were later complicated when sleuths spotted that the remarks were not in original footage made for the documentary, “Francesco” by Evgeny Afineevsky. Instead, they appeared to come from a segment of a 2019 interview with Mexican broadcaster Televisa that never reached the air.
Chico Harlan in Rome and Michelle Boorstein in Washington contributed to this report.
This report has been updated.