A recent documentary about Pope Francis that premiered Wednesday in Rome has re-focused attention on same-sex relationships and traditional marriage. While a debate is now raging over the accuracy of those comments, the order in which they were made, and the integrity (or lack thereof) of the documentary film in which they appear, this is one of those “teaching moments” where we can profit by revisiting the Catholic Church’s view on these matters.

The documentary includes several comments from the Supreme Pontiff on these contentious issues, such as: “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it.” In the film, Pope Francis also seems to weigh in on the issue of civil unions by saying: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.” He then went to say to Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, “God made you gay.”

Although an investigation is apparently underway to determine how and why these comments were made, and whether or not they resulted from selective and manipulative editing of an interview with him, they do raise numerous questions — both about Church teaching and about the Pope’s overall view of such matters.

To be sure, in the past, Pope Francis has urged the church to adopt a more welcoming stance towards LGBT people. Many see this beginning with his response to a question in 2013 about gay priests, in which he famously said: “Who am I to judge?” Two years later, during his visit to the United States, the Pope met with a former student of his who is openly gay, Yayo Grassi, and his 19-year-old partner, Iwan Bagus, at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. — indirectly affirming, in the eyes of many, that such relationships are acceptable.

The U.S. Supreme Court. Image courtesy of Ted Eytan, licensed under CCA-SA 2.0 Generic.

It is well known that modern Western society — in the Americas and Europe — have sought for decades for same sex-unions to be accepted and sanctioned as a human right. The U.S. recognized this in the Supreme Court decision Obergefell et al v. Hodges, Director, Ohio Department of Health (2015). The European Court of Human Rights did the same in Oliari and Others v Italy (2015), likewise establishing a positive obligation upon Member States of the European Union to provide legal recognition for same-sex couples.

Yet, there are two flaws in equating same-sex unions to traditional marriage between a male and a female.

The first has to do with its denial of the natural law, that unwritten order which expresses the fact that nature itself conveys a moral message. In this case, the natural law speaks to sexual intimacy between men and women: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Genesis 1, 27-28).

God created us male and female, equal in dignity; but He also created us with respective and complementary characteristics to form a family. It is the monogamous matrimonial union between man and woman that is both the foundation and heritage of the family, as well as the pillar of all society. This is because the family is a ‘bridge’ between the human person and society from the outset — that is, from the very start of when humans began to form and live as a community.

The pretense of the State deeming same-sex ‘marriage’ a human right is what has ultimately misled so many — both homosexuals and heterosexuals — into believing that such legalized unions are equivalent to those between a man and a woman, and that, therefore, they must be equally protected under law.

The rationale is that if two consenting adults love each other, they have a right to contract a marriage. Even some Roman emperors, for example, had male lovers — and yet they still knew that it would have been contrary to established human principles to pretend that they could marry another man.

While same-sex unions may be protected as a human right, they are not natural rights. Not all forms of relationships are relevant under the law — only those which acquire a structure that has a reciprocal rapport with society, such as the institution of the family. And it is this objective structure that same-sex unions do not possess because they are confined to the ethical-personal relationship of affection between individuals.

The second flaw in equating same-sex unions with traditional marriage has to do with the premise that it is a human right — that is, that it has something to do with the so-called right to seek whatever gives one happiness — which must be safeguarded by government. In other words, the conventional but erroneous thinking is: “If I love someone, then that gives me the right to marry that person.” (In the vernacular of today: “Love is love.”)

The claim made here is that such unions compel the State to provide social protective intervention. However, love in itself does not give one the juridical right to marry. If this were the case — that is, if what gives one pleasure must be protected and ensured by civil law (one’s utilitarian pursuit of happiness) — why could one not contract a polygamous marriage if it, too, gives one pleasure? Or a marriage between an adult and a child, as done in various Islamic countries? Where indeed do we draw the line?

What gives a man the natural right to marry a woman (provided that neither is bound by a vow to a religious institution or to another person) is the conjugal complementarity that leads to the formation of the family — the foundational unit of society, along with the mutual understanding and the acceptance of the matrimonial obligations. This right must not only be protected but promoted by the State; it cannot be infringed upon or altered.

“The Burning of Sodom” (1843/1857) by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875), oil on canvas, 92 x 181 cm, located in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal.

Regrettably, the alleged statements made by the Pope on these matters seems to muddy the waters — and, by contributing to the confusion surrounding these matters, risks putting the structure and foundation of civilization in peril.

Though not official Church teaching, Pope Francis’ words — which Cardinal Burke has reminded the faithful are merely opinion — will nevertheless have an impact and perhaps even influence Catholic bishops around the world. In the worst case, progressives might be inspired to more actively oppose anti-homosexuality laws. In the best case, it could spark a re-examination of traditional Biblical and Church teachings on traditional marriage, the family, and the mystery of procreative conjugal love. This would certainly be of great benefit to civilization as a whole.