The Pope has previous form in trying to steer a middle ground on civil unions while defending marriage

The Pope has previous form in trying to steer a middle ground on civil unions while defending marriage Pope Francis Photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA.
In Buenos Aires, the future Pope Francis saw same-sex marriage as an attack on children but he did think that gay people should be included in civil unions, writes Austen Ivereigh

In Argentina, there was one issue over which a direct confrontation with the government was inevitable. Although Cristina Kirchner was president, it was Néstor Kirchner — then a national deputy — who drove the government’s out-of-the-blue same-sex marriage bill in 2010, inspired by the Spanish socialist measure five years earlier.

Although he had never shown the least interest in gay rights or gay people, the policy was perfect tinder for Mr Kirchner’s polarising strategy. By positing same-sex marriage as a minority civil rights issue, he could frame the defenders of the traditional understanding of marriage as opponents of equality and the Church as seeking to impose its morality on the law. It was the kind of fight he relished: one that would galvanise the Kirchner political base while throwing his opponents into confusion.

Cardinal Bergoglio knew many gay people and had spiritually accompanied a number of them. He knew their stories of rejection by their families and what it was like to live in fear of being singled out and beaten up. He told a Catholic gay activist, a former theology professor named Marcelo Márquez, that he favoured gay rights as well as legal recognition for civil unions, which gay couples could also access. But he was utterly opposed to any attempt to redefine marriage in law. “He wanted to defend marriage but without wounding anybody’s dignity or reinforcing their exclusion,” says a close collaborator of the cardinal’s.

“He favoured the greatest possible legal inclusion of gay people and their human rights expressed in law, but would never compromise the uniqueness of marriage as being between a man and a woman for the good of children.”

‘Purely civic’

Cardinal Bergoglio had not raised strong objections to a 2002 civil unions law that applied only to Buenos Aires and that granted rights to any two people cohabiting for more than two years, independent of their gender or sexual orientation. He regarded it as a purely civic, legal arrangement that left marriage unaffected; it granted some privileges but not the right to adopt or any automatic right to inheritance.

Yet Cardinal Bergoglio was criticised from Rome for failing to oppose it when, the following year, the Vatican issued a document binding bishops and politicians to give “clear and emphatic opposition” to any legal recognition of homosexual unions.

At the same time, Cardinal Bergoglio was quick to react to any attempt to undermine the law’s conjugal understanding of marriage. In 2009 he wrote an emphatic letter to the head of the Buenos Aires city government, Mauricio Macri, when he did not immediately strike down an attempt by a judge to authorise – contrary to the law – the ‘marriage’ of a same-sex couple. It was the first time in his 18 years as a bishop that he openly criticised a public official by name.


Federico Wals, who had been Cardinal Bergoglio’s head of press since 2007, explained in early April 2010 that the cardinal’s position was resolutely in favour of the existing law upholding marriage as a union of a man and a woman, and that a same-sex ‘marriage’ was an impossibility. But this did not prevent, he said, revising and extending the concept of civil unions, as long as this left marriage intact.

At the plenary meeting of the 100 Argentine bishops a few weeks later, this was the position that Cardinal Bergoglio, as their president, urged them to adopt as both right and strategically intelligent, warning them that if they opted simply to oppose the bill (without proposing an alternative that advanced civil rights for gay people), they would play into Kirchner’s hands and make a same-sex marriage law more likely.

That is precisely what happened.

It was easy for Archbishop Aguer to claim that any endorsement of civil unions was against the Pope’s wishes…”

It was the only occasion during his six-year presidency of the Argentine bishops’ conference that Cardinal Bergoglio lost a vote, albeit narrowly (60 to 40). The rigoristi, led by Archbishop Héctor Aguer of La Plata, urged simple opposition on the grounds that the 2003 Vatican document prohibited legal recognition of same-sex unions in any form.

Whether the document referred to civil union laws that gave rights to all cohabiting couples, not just same-sex ones, was not clear; but because the document had been signed by the man who was now Benedict XVI, it was easy for Archbishop Aguer to claim that any endorsement of civil unions was against the Pope’s wishes and amounted to formal cooperation in what the document called “gravely unjust laws”.

The Vatican document was a classic example of what the St Gallen group of cardinals had long criticised as Roman overreach: the document’s detailed prescriptiveness tied the hands of local bishops, depriving them of the room to manoeuvre in any battle to preserve a greater good.

The agreed bishops’ declaration, which made no mention of civil unions, was a vigorous defence of marriage as rooted in the complementary sexuality of man and woman, vital to society and to children, whose essential properties were key to their upbringing. The bishops rejected the idea that such a concept was discriminatory, while arguing that a same- sex marriage law would reduce the legal understanding of marriage to a mere partnership, thereby weakening it in the eyes of future generations.

The bill was narrowly passed (126 to 110) by the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, on May 5, redefining marriage as a partnership between any two people, with full rights to adopt children.


The bill then went for endorsement from the upper chamber, where there was strong opposition from most of the seventy-two senators, especially those representing interior provinces. In the run-up to the Senate debate in mid-July, Cardinal Bergoglio mobilised the diocese, urging Catholics to make their views known and asking for the bishops’ statement to be read out in all of the churches on July 8.

But that day another, private letter that Cardinal Bergoglio had sent a fortnight earlier to the four Carmelite monasteries of Buenos Aires was leaked — how and why is not known. Its dramatic language ensured that it dominated the headlines and eclipsed the public statement. The letter to the nuns has been described as a “dangerous tactic” that backfired. But it wasn’t a tactic at all. It formed no part of any political or internal Church strategy, and was never intended to be made public.

At the heart of the bill was a lie: same-sex marriage claimed to add to conjugal marriage”

Cardinal Bergoglio had an intense devotion to the Carmelite St Thérèse of Lisieux and was close to the Carmelite nuns in Buenos Aires. He had great confidence in their power of prayer, and had often over the years sent the nuns letters asking for their prayers for this or that intention, especially when he was under pressure. This was no exception. “It was a letter in which he was sharing what was in his heart with his intimates, intercessors, in the language of spiritual people,” says Cardinal Bergoglio’s close collaborator.

The cardinal told the Carmelites what he discerned at stake in the same-sex marriage legislation: a serious threat to the family that would lead to children being deprived of a father and a mother. It was “a frontal attack on God’s law”: not simply a political battle but “a bid by the father of lies seeking to confuse and deceive the children of God”.

He went on to ask for the nuns’ prayers for the assistance of the Holy Spirit “to protect us from the spell of so much sophistry of those who favour this law, which has confused and deceived even those of goodwill”. He had spotted the serpent’s tail, with all its usual tell-tale signs: hysteria, division, confusion, envy. This was “God’s war”, as he put it later in his letter.

To anyone who knows his spiritual writings, this was vintage Jorge Bergoglio. It was the language he had used with the Jesuits, language that is common among contemplatives, on retreats, or in spiritual direction.

He saw behind the political battle another, spiritual contest, in which the devil, driven by and provoking a sense of rivalry (gay people suddenly discovering a resentment at being disqualified from marriage), appeared, as usual, sub angelo lucis, in the guise of light (equality, justice, and civil rights – all good things), and thereby deceiving people of goodwill.

At the heart of the bill was a lie: same-sex marriage claimed to add to conjugal marriage or to exist alongside it, while in reality dismantling it.

Allowing gay people to marry required that the ancient, natural, God- given institution of matrimony be stripped of the very thing that made it a reflection of the divine plan: the bonding of man and woman, and the begetting and raising of children by their natural parents in a relationship of permanence and sexual exclusivity.

As Cardinal Bergoglio put it in his official, public letter, a law that recognised marriage as male-female did not discriminate but appropriately differentiated – appropriately, because a man-woman bond, like a child’s need of a father and a mother, were core human realities. To try to make marriage something else was “a real and serious anthropological step backward”.

The things I heard about the cardinal during those 24 hours we were in session are unrepeatable…”

Taken out of its context of spiritual discernment, and without this accompanying explanation, the letter was a firebomb. It sparked outrage from the kirchneristas and considerable discomfort in the Church, where many lamented its language. Because the bishops had vetoed Cardinal Bergoglio’s bid to advance the social inclusion of gay people, Kirchner had been handed a huge target.

As he triumphantly declared that it was time for Argentina “definitively to leave behind these obscurantist and discriminatory views”, the government-funded Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo dutifully declared that the Church’s complicity with dictatorship meant it “lacked the moral authority” to argue on the issue. From China, Cristina Kirchner adopted a presidential pose of regret at the tone of the opposition to the bill. It was a shame, she said, that “equal marriage” was being seen as a question of “religious morality” when “all we’re doing is looking at reality as it is”.


All eyes were now on the Senate. As Catholics and evangelicals demonstrated outside on July 15, the senators divided into three groupings: those favouring the government bill redefining marriage as gender-neutral, those opposing, and those proposing a French-type pacte civil (but which also included the right to adopt). With Cardinal Bergoglio’s backing, the Federal Peronist (anti-Kirchner) senator of San Luis, Liliana Negre de Alonso, brokered an agreement between the second two groups to reject the government bill in favour of an expanded civil unions bill but without the right to adopt children.

At the end of the debate…arbitrarily nullified the compromise solution, forcing senators to vote yes or no on the Government bill”

“The fact that Cardinal Bergoglio understood the need for an alternative proposal and supported us was a huge comfort,” recalls Mrs Negre, a member of the Catholic organisation Opus Dei. “With great effort we managed to get agreement for a civil union bill that offered practical benefits [to gay people] but left marriage law intact. I sought the advice of many people at that time, among them the cardinal. He called me at home and said, ‘You’re on the  right track’.”

Scornful attack

Heading into the debate, the Negre proposal had the support of a clear majority of the senate. But over the next 20 hours, the kirchnerista senators used the cardinal’s leaked letter to mount a ferocious, scornful attack in the tradition of fanatical anticlericalism. “The things I heard about the cardinal during those 24 hours we were in session are unrepeatable,” Mrs Negre recalls. She was herself reduced to tears with accusations that she was a Nazi who wanted to do to gay people what Hitler did to the Jews.

At the end of the debate, the Senate president, under pressure from the leader of the pro-government bloc, arbitrarily nullified the compromise solution, forcing senators to vote yes or no on the Government bill. In the midst of confusion and angry scenes, during which a number of senators walked out in protest at the government’s steamrollering, the bill passed by just six votes. “We beat Bergoglio!”

Negre remembers the head of the kirchnerista bloc crowing, “as if the whole debate had been between them and him.”

This is an extract from The Great Reformer (2015) by Austen Ivereigh.