An apparent endorsement by Pope Francis of civil unions for same-sex couples won’t change the church’s teaching on homosexuality, a local priest said, but the statement has people talking.

The newly released documentary, “Francesco,” includes a clip from a 2019 interview with Mexican broadcaster Televisa in which Francis said that gays deserve to be part of the family and that he supported civil unions, or a “ley de convivencia civil” as he said in Spanish — to give them legal protections, the Associated Press reported.

Father Ian Vanheusen, a priest with the Diocese of Raleigh assigned to the East Carolina University Newman Center and St. Peter Parish in Greenville, said Pope Francis was not offering official teachings during the interview and the statement does not change the church’s conservative values about homosexuality.

“I think some people are dismayed, not because of what the pope said, but because of how the media has spun it, that people are spinning this as a victory for a liberal agenda, that he’s changing the church’s teaching on same-sex attraction, which there is no indication of that,” Vanheusen said.

About midway through the film, director Evgeny Afineevsky recounts the story of Andrea Rubera, a married gay Catholic who wrote Francis asking for his advice about bringing into the church his three young children with his husband, the Associated Press reported.

It was an anguished question, given the church teaches that gay people must be treated with dignity and respect but that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” the AP reported. The church also holds that marriage is an indissoluble union between man and woman, and that as a result, gay marriage is unacceptable.

In the end, Rubera recounts how Francis urged him to approach his parish transparently and bring the children up in the faith, which he did. After the anecdote ends, the film cuts to Francis’ civil union comments in the Televisa interview.

Vanheusen said the larger Catholic community has split views about the pope’s statement based on their political views, he said. Some people believe it is a victory for a liberal agenda, which Vanheusen has not seen among local parishioners, he said.

“Some people have been disappointed because they view it as going against traditional values, and what I would say to either folks is the church teaching has not changed on how the Catholic Church views same-sex attraction,” Vanheusen said.

Same-sex couples cannot get married in Catholic churches and he said he does not foresee that changing. Vanheusen said the Catholic church helps those who struggle with same-sex attraction by praying with them, helping them with their relationship with the Lord and to understand the church’s teachings.

“Absolutely, 100 percent, pastoral care and loving folks with the struggle of same-sex attraction is a huge priority for us. We accept all people, we try to call them to chastity, we try to call them to live the virtuous life,” Vanheusen said. “Throughout the years I’ve worked with many people that struggle with same-sex attraction and helping them to integrate the church’s teaching on sexuality and it’s always been an important ministry.”

The Diocese of Raleigh released an official statement in regard to the remarks. The statement said a documentary is not a typical or appropriate way to offer definitive teaching on matters of faith and morals.

“Regardless, the pope’s affirmation of the dignity of all people and his call for respect of all people are rooted in Catholic teaching. These recent comments cannot, however, alter in any way what the Church has received from our Lord, namely that, the marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, has been founded and endowed with its own special laws by the Creator. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1660),” the statement said.

A conservative response by the church is not surprising to The Rev. Ann Harrington, a lifelong Catholic who is part of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests and founder of the Free Spirit Inclusive Catholic Community in Greenville. The Catholic church does not recognize women as priests like it does not recognize same-sex marriage.


Harrington agreed the pope’s comments had been taken out of context. She said she believes people take quotes from powerful people and use them for their own agenda. She said families will talk about the pope’s comments, and in talking, people often find who God calls them to be.

“So when he says something he means to make a point. Now I think in his wisdom, he knows he can’t control the message, that the message is controlled by the Holy Spirit,” Harrington said.

Harrington said she hopes the pope’s comments change the church’s view on homosexuality. She said growing up she was taught that the church was the hierarchy, but the Church is actually the people of God.

“The church decides, not the hierarchy, even if they think they do, but clearly the people have already decided, I think, to embrace, most Catholics, to embrace their LGBTQ loved ones,” Harrington said.

She said it’s difficult for her to know the general reaction of the local Catholic community to the Pope’s comments. “I can speak for my community, we are delighted that the Pope would make more positive statements towards LGBTQ people,” Harrington said.

The Vatican as of Friday had not responded to the film or reports that portions of Francis’ interview with Televisa were never aired in 2019, the Associated Press reported. Cardinal Raymond Burke, Francis’ frequent nemesis on matters of doctrine, said the pope’s comments were devoid of any “magisterial weight” and would “generate great bewilderment and cause confusion and error among Catholic faithful.”

Harrington said none of that mattered in her opinion. “It’s out there now. Like I said, I think the strongest thing is, it is out and the Spirit will use it and the Spirit and Jesus was all about healing,” she said.

Greenville’s Catholic population is small compared to other faiths. There are two churches in Greenville, compared to dozens of Protestant congregations. ECU Religious Studies Professor Calvin Mercer cited a Pew Research Center survey that says Catholics make up about 9 percent of the state’s Christian population, with most living in larger metropolitan areas.

Mercer said the Pope’s statements likely won’t have much influence on religious traditions that make up the vast majority of the local population because Christian denominations have their own history, internal struggles, and position statements with regard to a host of social issues.

“The impact of the Pope’s statement on something like this is important, however, in that it reflects a general trend in society toward inclusion and acceptance. And that general trend over time can help shift specific religious communities and society at large,” he said.

Indeed, it is very encouraging to see a prominent leader of a faith community affirm LGBTQ lives and relationships, said Mark Rasdorf, senior associate director of the Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center at ECU.

Rasdorf said the LGBTQ community is not a monolithic community. People come from all walks of life and faiths, he said.

“I would say his message may resonate with some in the LGBTQ community, especially those who identify as Catholic, as the leader of the Catholic faith, to hear the pope deliver such an affirmative message about our relationships, those we love, it offers hope,” Rasdorf said.