THE BLOG
09/25/2015 08:48 am ET Updated Sep 25, 2016

What Pope Francis Really Said About (Gay) Marriage -- and What He Did Not

Bloomberg via Getty Images

The United States this past June did something that the Catholic Church and the Vatican have for years railed against: granted marriage equality to its gay and lesbian citizens.

Yet, Pope Francis had nothing to say about it. Not then and not now.

Considering that Pope Benedict often vocally expressed harsh condemnation of marriage equality -- even traveling to Spain to speak out against it when that country was among the first to legalize marriage for gays and lesbians and called it a "threat to the future of humanity"-- it's astonishing how silent Francis is on the issue. I've noted in the past how he had no comment as country after country in Europe legalized marriage for gays and lesbians. And then this past June, he had no comment after the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

And yet, while some of the American media noted the significance of his non-mention of the issue during his address to Congress, others were determined to read into his comments something that simply was not there.

On CNN, anchors claimed the pope spoke about "traditional" marriage and decided that this was a remark intended to refer to same-sex marriage. (In fact, Francis never used the word "traditional" in his remarks.) The AP reported his discussion of marriage and the family was "an allusion to gay marriage in a country that recently legalized same-sex marriage across the land."

But that was a stretch by even the most liberal interpretation of Francis' words. All of this seemed to be part of an insistent mainstream media narrative that the pope, on his trip to the U.S., is making comments that "both sides" -- mostly meaning Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and progressives -- will be happy about. This is simply not true. The pope spent little time in his address to Congress on abortion -- without mentioning the word -- while going full force against the death penalty and emphatically using the term. From climate change to immigration, his passions are clear. Even conservatives are noting that on abortion and gay equality, the pope was subdued.

And here's exactly what he said about marriage and the family:

It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet 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 can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.

In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.

First off, it goes without saying that gay and lesbian people are a part of families and have families, and many are parents and raise children -- and Francis knows this because he has met with gay activists who are married and who have children. So if he meant that the other "options" that are offered in the "culture" today which are "dissuading" people from "starting a family" include the ability to live as out gay people -- and it's possible he did -- then it's pretty weak and he intentionally didn't make his case with clarity.

Secondly, again, this is a country, the most powerful in the world, that just made marriage legal for all gay and lesbian citizens and the pope didn't directly -- or even indirectly -- address it? No mention of marriage being between a "man and woman" or children needing a "mother and a father"? Really? No mention of passing laws that could inhibit marriage for gays and "protect" those opposed to it, like the Kentucky clerk, Kim Davis? That, again, is astonishing. Francis was, after all, speaking to the legislative body that could do something about it -- and which is trying to, with Republicans having introduced the odious First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow clerks like Kim Davis and bakers and florists and others to deny services to gay and lesbian couples.

Also sitting right before Francis during his address to Congress were three of the five Supreme Court justices -- a majority of the majority -- who ruled for marriage equality in June: Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Kennedy. The pope had his big chance to be clear and emphatic about the terrible thing they'd supposedly done and he blew it? Maybe he just didn't care all that much.

The pope's main concern about the family, according to what he said in his comments to Congress, is that people -- children in particular -- seem to be "disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair." That sounds more like someone promoting social programs to help the poor and stop gun-violence than someone trying to end same-sex marriage.

Again, this is the head of a a church that has for years condemned gays as "intrinsically disordered" (and still does, in its doctrine) and has seen marriage equality as harming the culture. And yet, the pope, who in the past asked "Who am I to judge?" when the question of homosexuality was raised to him, decided not to reiterate that church doctrine.

None of this, of course, is to say that the pope is not an artful politician, sometimes telling different audiences what they want to hear. In the Philippines in January -- a country in the third world, where the church sees its best chances for expansion, and the most Catholic country in Asia -- Francis made a comment that was reasonably interpreted as more of a denunciation of marriage equality: "The family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life."

Though he stayed clear of marriage being between a "man and a woman," the term "redefine marriage" is a standard charge of anti-gay conservatives. In the West -- where the money is, and where the pope seemingly would rather find common ground -- that would be seen as a direct attack on marriage equality, so interestingly we didn't hear that term in the past few days. Francis may still be more emphatic at the conference on families he's attending in Philadelphia after his trip to New York. We'll know for sure in a couple of days.

But so far, the pope at best spoke in code -- as when, during his address at the White House, and sounding like Republican political candidates, he talked of defending "religious liberty" in the context of also protecting people against discrimination -- and at worst (for anti-gay conservatives, of course) he completely dodged the issue during his address to Congress, focusing instead on other forces plaguing the family. Whether or not it's all calculated, and though it represents no change of any kind in the doctrine of the church, it's still a win for LGBT people and an angering loss for anti-LGBT forces in America.