While Pope Francis must uphold the stalwart tradition of the Catholic Church in opposing gay marriage, he had very different views when he was known as Cardinal Bergoglio.
During his time as a cardinal in Argentina, he was faced with the difficult decision of whether or not the church would support gay marriage. The country was pushing hard to approve legalizing gay marriage and as a compromise, Cardinal Bergoglio proposed that Argentina support civil unions. While this was not exactly a sign of support for the gay community, he saw it more as “the lesser of two evils,” according to his biographer Sergio Rubin. While publicly he spoke out against marriage, in private he tried to express sympathy towards the gay community. In doing so, he ostracized his more conservative fellow church leaders.
Bergoglio faced a lot of national and government opposition in his public stance against gay marriage, despite his progressive view of supporting civil unions. The president of Argentina at the time, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, supported passing gay marriage as did most of the population. While the country was three-quarters Catholic in 2010, according to a Pew study only 19% attended Mass regularly. While gay rights leaders were insulted by Bergoglio’s condemnation of gay marriage, his inner circle said that his beliefs were actually very tolerant. According to Roxana Alfieri, a social worker in the communications department of the bishops’ central office, “He didn’t want the church to take a position of condemning people but rather of respect for their rights.”
Ultimately both gay marriage and civil unions were struck down by the church, although it was passed by the Argentinean government. One priest who publicly favors gay marriage, Rev. Nicolas Alessio, wrote that Argentina should be used as a “model for the rest of the continent on gay rights.”
He was suspended from his work by another archbishop. Since 2010, 1,000 gay couples have been married in Argentina, and a specialized tourism bureau for gay travelers has grown.
As for Pope Francis, although some of his more progressive constituents were hoping that he would usher in a more tolerant age, despite his former support of civil unions, he is still following the strict interpretation of marriage between a man and a woman as seen by the Catholic Church. Clearly he was torn between duty and ideology in the past as a cardinal in Argentina, where the political winds were against him. Now, sitting from a higher pulpit, he may not have the luxury of ambiguity, much to the dismay of church progressives calling for change from within.