Rorate Caeli is throwing a tantrum about Pope Francis' recent remarks on civil unions. To their credit, they provide a direct quote of his reply to a question recently posed to him:
Many countries have regulated civil unions. Is it a path that the Church can understand? But up to what point?
Holy Father: Marriage is between one man and one woman. The secular States want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of coexistence, spurred by the need to regulate economic aspects between persons as, for instance, to ensure healthcare. Each case must be looked at and evaluated in its diversity. [English translation: Zenit]
They follow up by providing a long string of quotes from Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI which we are supposed to interpret as being at variance with Pope Francis' remarks. Unfortunately, RC fails to notice that there is no variance between the remarks of the three Popes. All three are, indeed, discussing civil unions, but one of them is discussing an aspect of those unions the first two simply did not address.
Of Popes and Condoms
Remember when Pope Benedict pointed out that homosexuals who use condoms may actually be on the road to sanctity? Many Catholics got upset because they were under the false impression that the use of condoms is intrinsically evil. Benedict merely pointed out the obvious - condom use is not intrinsically evil when the only possible purpose of the use is disease control. Homosexuals can't impregnate each other, so the condom is not a prophylactic against pregnancy, it is a prophylactic against disease.
If anyone wants to recall, while I applauded and agreed with Pope Benedict's remarks in that context, I was nearly alone in pointing out that the good Pope of recent memory actually screwed up part of the doctrine by failing to distinguish between the use of condoms by a male prostitute serving a male client and a male prostitute servicing a female client. Condom use is actually a step towards morality in the first instance, but is an intrinsically evil act in the second.
I point this out to remind people that I have a track record of looking for precision in language. Pope Francis is generally quite precise in his language, and this instance is no exception.
If you carefully read the papal quotes RC provides, you will quickly notice that the two previous Popes always addressed their remarks to the procreative aspects of the unions between persons. They did not address the economic aspect at all.
Here, Pope Francis, knowing that the generative aspect of the discussion is already well-covered by previous Magisterial statements, is addressing the economic aspects of the contracts which are known as "civil unions". Just as the condom is intrinsically evil for opposite sex relations, but perfectly legitimate (and, as Benedict reminds us, possibly even a step towards proper human morality) in same-sex relations, so civil unions are evil in their disordered approach (or complete lack) towards generative, procreative functions, but are not necessarily evil in their approach to economic issues.
In short, Pope Francis was distinguishing different aspects of the relationship and bringing important nuance to the discussion.
The Goods of Marriage
And before we go all ballistic, stop and think. There are many, many different conceptions of marriage in the world. The ancient Greeks considered marriage important primarily because procreation and the raising of children was a duty that every citizen owed to the city-state. The Romans considered marriage and procreation primarily a duty owed to the family; you couldn't inherit property from your father until you gave him grandchildren. The Hindus consider marriage and procreation a necessary state in life for the joining not only of the two souls of the spouses, but also the joining of two families. It is a kind of sacrament. Jews consider it primarily a business contract between man and woman that is almost devoid of spirituality (apart from the joining of the souls of the two spouses) and not necessarily related to procreation at all. Muslims see it as a business contract between two men: the bridegroom and the custodian of the woman. Buddhists see it as an attachment to the world, and a sign that you aren't really ready to enter nirvana. They have no rules about marriage or procreation whatsoever.
Now, all of these views have aspects that are both correct and incorrect. At most, the best of these attitudes are somewhat distorted understandings of natural marriages, with only a few having a glimmering of the supernatural possibilities. Due to lack of baptism, even those with a correct glimmering are wholly unable to actually accomplish the vision that a true sacramental marriage presents.
But, despite all of these failures, the Church recognizes those aspects of natural marriages which can be recognized. An unbaptized person married to someone of the opposite sex and looking to enter the Church is recognized as having a valid natural marriage. If they have had multiple marriages, they may even have to go through annulment procedures or invoke the Pauline or Petrine privileges.
Of Civil Unions
Now, civil unions are not even valid natural marriages. But, they are relationships, even if distorted and tortured relationships. Those relationships do have real consequences in the natural world: economic, biological (even if not procreative), emotional consequences. The Church has to consider how to handle the fact that society has decided to pursue this kind of sin with vigor. As society turns to worship this new idol to their unknown god, what can the Church - standing in the Areopagus of the public square - what, if anything, can we bless and affirm in order to draw them away from that idol and towards the good?
Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II have fully addressed the problems in civil unions so that the faithful have no illusions that they may follow the crowd on this topic. Those problems are quite clear. The prohibitions are quite clear.
But, as Aquinas points out, people sin because they perceive a good in the sinful action. So Pope Francis has begun to contemplate the other part of the issue: how does the Church use whatever small slice of good which may be present to draw the idol worshippers to Christ?
Because so many people comment on the economic benefits, and because he is a man concerned about the poor, he remarks on the possibilities of economic goods that might be acknowledged and "baptized." The Church has done this kind of thing in the past (as Pope Benedict tried to do with condom use and Paul tried to do with the idol to the Unknown God). This is nothing new under the sun. You would think a traditionalist blog would recognize that.