Making Pastoral Sense of Pope Francis’ “Civil Arrangement” Proposal

Pope Francis’ recent comments on “civil arrangement/union” for same-sex couples have caused concern among many across the world. Several Catholic bishops, archbishops and even a few cardinals have not minced words in their criticism. Even some Orthodox Patriarchs have distanced themselves from Pope Francis. Many claim that Pope Francis is leading his flock astray! Would this really be true?

As a catechist who works with adults (including college students and young professionals), who also follows the Holy Father carefully, I believe some clarity could be offered, which might aid the pastors of our Church. Importantly, given that Homiletic and Pastoral Review aims at addressing pressing pastoral issues in the Church’s life and mission, a perspective of the sort given here may aid pastors in the U.S., and their brothers in faith in the rest of the world.

I believe making pastoral sense of Pope Francis’ “civil agreement” proposal requires two simultaneous moves: (i) paying attention to Pope Francis’ message and his intent, and (ii) staying true to the Church’s tradition and teaching. Needless to say, the Pope too would like us to do the same!

Pope Francis, his orthodoxy, his mercy-orthopraxy

The Pope has iterated several times in the past the universal call to holiness, consistent with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Even in his apostolic exhortation, he clarifies that “growth in holiness is a journey in a community, side by side with others.”1 The “other” is everyone – but especially the “least” (cf., Matthew 25) which must include those in the margins. When we pay attention to the other, to the least — to his or her pain and unique sufferings — only then are we able to offer healing, and in so doing, we too grow in love and holiness. This is why pastoral function is so central to the vibrancy and spiritual richness of the Church.

Inspired by Franciscan ideals, an essential feature of his papacy, Pope Francis tends to pay attention to what is being spoken, especially by the minority groups, across the Church and the world. He is a pastor who believes that dialogue and listening is essential to building bridges and fostering a sympathetic because mutual understanding. If anything, this is one of the central messages in his recent encyclical, the very thoughtful Fratelli Tutti.2

While Pope Francis maintains orthodoxy, he also values orthopraxis — particularly in the implementation of laws in a spirit of mercy. His teachings are geared towards a clear vision, aimed at creating a society that freely chooses Christ and his ways. Like Christ, he too wishes that people choose their paths, not through coercion, but by paying attention to the call of God. Christ never forces but always teaches so we can hear the Father’s voice clearly and internalize his ways, his commands, internally as a vocation. In that sense, the Church has always been an advocate of the “primacy of conscience,” a key Catholic teaching, which draws upon the dignity of the human person.3

In the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has clearly and unequivocally turned down the suggestion of same-sex union as being equal to marriage in the eyes of the Church. However, about families having homosexual members, he states: “Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.4

The key to Pope Francis’ approach is to create pastoral conditions wherein an un-coerced, well-formed conscience comes about among those who are same-sex attracted and their family members. He is not interested in adding encumbrance through legal or governmental oversight on people who are same-sex attracted. He would rather have people with a homosexual orientation accept Church teachings, through their own personal journey of faith and spiritual maturation.

Preferential option for those in the margins: a guiding principle

Many have characterized Pope Francis as a very pastorally minded person. They are right — for his approach is consistently care-oriented and therapeutic. His approach to people, especially those who are poor and those in the margins, comes from his desire to offer healing to the world. This is in keeping with the tradition of the Church, wherein it is understood that sanctity can indeed be rightfully pursued through mercy.5

In fact this is how one may even interpret his encouragement to Sister Monica of Argentina, who works with transgender people towards their rehabilitation and employment.6 In the Holy Father’s way of thinking here, it is only right to first address the basic and psychological needs of, say, employment, physical safety, security, affection, and integrity of families (including those families that have members who identify as sexual minorities). Once these essential needs are addressed, the Holy Father hopes a secure environment wherein higher calls can be fostered and thus heard rather clearly by the faithful. He is trying to create a stage of charity whereupon the voice of the Church can be heard more clearly and convincingly.7 This, in due course, would likely yield a well-formed conscience, wherein the person will have the opportunity to discern clearly and draw closer to the mind of the Church and thus to the mind of Christ, as they are one and the same. It is in this situation that the person with same-sex attraction can move towards life-altering decisions, such as a free choice of celibacy (perhaps even consecration) as a way of life.

Focus on the human person and primacy of conscience

We have seen that Pope Francis is a pastor — first and foremost. He responds to suffering with immediacy when he sees it. It is after and during healing that he wishes for people to pay heed and listen, so that they may, through the freedom of their conscience, follow Christ and his teachings as expressed in and through his Church on earth.

In Pope Francis, we see a pastor who understands the Church’s requirement of celibacy from homosexual persons. On the other hand, he also sees the reality wherein same-sex individuals often find their lives or physical safety or integrity threatened by laws in their own countries or their own societies. In the meanwhile, it is also well known that many are currently unprepared to take on a vow of celibacy or live a life of perpetual continence. He also understands the alienation, isolation, and even rejection from families that people with same-sex attraction and their partners face. The negative psychological and harsh social implications for homosexual people who find themselves in these conditions are well known among caregiving professionals.

It is only reasonable to then conjecture that following Pope Francis’ advice, once their essential safety and psychological needs and their dignity is ensured through civil structure; out of their own free will and conviction, many in same-sex unions and those who are homosexual (for that matter, those who are sexual minorities) would turn to the Church. Some would then get the psychological and spiritual maturity to live a life of celibacy and perhaps even consecrate themselves (privately or with their bishop).

Setting the context right, by first healing the wounds, and lifting structures that cause fear and isolation among sexual minorities is only reasonable at the moment. This way, in a secure environment, Church teaching can be more clearly heard and internalized; conscience could then be freely ordered, and personal will could be exercised in freedom.

Law of gradualness in pastoral practice

In addition to the primacy of conscience, to make sense of what is proposed by Pope Francis would also require an appreciation of the “law of gradualness” — a pastoral principle. To begin with, we may clarify that “what is known as the law of gradualness or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with gradualness of the law, as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.”8

While truth remains objective and unchanging, the Church, as a fundamentally pastoral body also knows that arriving at the truth and the “mind of the Church” is truly a pilgrim journey. In fact every human being (except Christ and the Blessed Mother, of course) would need to go through a process to form a well-ordered conscience. None of us are born saints but are on our way, slowly and gradually. Hence the Church has always allowed a certain freedom, and even ensured this “space,” in the hope that people may choose Catholic teaching through a genuine interior growth and exercise of free will.

Freedom for personal growth, healing and positive integration, made available through provision of basic psychological, social and family needs holds the key to pastoral care of homosexual persons. The processes involved are inevitably gradual; in the meantime provision of essential support is essential. It is this that Pope Francis’ proposal offers. He does not wish to see same-sex couples rendered vulnerable or see them coerced into accepting separation or life-long continence. As they heal, and experience interior growth, some of them will freely adopt Church teachings — when their psyche and conscience are ready for it. The Church in the meanwhile will remain the mother of all faithful who edifies through care and perennial teaching — not relying on coercion, but relying rather on patience, healing and love for one and all. An unencumbered and supportive overall environment will only aid Church teachings’ eventual acceptance as a truly viable option, for those who turn to her. This would be true of people who are same-sex attracted too.


To understand Pope Francis’ recent message, we ought to remember that he is a pastor first. Following the footsteps of Christ and his beloved name sake St. Francis of Assisi, he cares for wounds and inequities — here and now, on an urgent basis. He has demonstrated consistently that he stands for justice and truth simultaneously, and he also firmly believes in the evangelical value of Church’s teachings.

Given his recent proposal on allowing “civil agreements” among same-sex couples, it is clear that Pope Francis understands that in many parts of the globe the prevailing legal, societal or familial strictures does not aid the safety or psychological well being or the social integration of same-sex couples, and related groups of people. This causes profound harm, as is well known to those in caring professions.

It is with this context in mind that Pope Francis speaks with conviction about the value of having essential safety-related, and psychological and social, needs met, even if it means having legal structures such as “civil agreements” in place. It must be noted, however, that this is an arrangement which he himself in Amoris Laetitia clarifies as being unequal to sacramental marriage. He knows that once the wounds and inequities are addressed, the energizing and evangelical power of Church teachings will eventually come through effectively, and reach the hearts and minds of all people, especially those who feel their lives do not matter much.

It is ultimately in the hearts of people, rendered truly secure and emotionally and spiritually well-integrated, that Church teaching will find both understanding and whole-hearted acceptance. In the prevailing situation however, there exist several impediments to such positive integration among people with same-sex attraction. The Pope’s proposal comes from this standpoint. He is thus attempting to balance orthodoxy and what can rightfully be considered a mercy-orthopraxy, while holding onto the Catholic principles of “primacy of conscience” and trusting the power of the pastoral “law of gradualness” in this context.

  1. Apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et exsultate” of the Holy Father Francis on the Call to Holiness in today’s world.
  2. Encyclical letter “Fratelli Tutti” of the Holy Father Francis on Fraternity and Social friendship.
  3. i. Nicole Winfield, “Pope Francis reaffirms primacy of conscience amid criticism of ‘Amoris Laetitia’” America, November 2017.

    ii. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1776.

  4. Post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia of Pope Francis to Bishops, Priests, Deacons, Consecrated persons, Christian married couples and all the lay faithful on Love in the family, 250 and 251.
  5. Eastern Catholic and Orthodox church has an explicit “saint title” called the merciful.
  6. Billy Critchley-Menor, S.J., “A Beautiful Bond: Argentinian Nun Ministers to Transgender Women,” The Jesuit Post: August 2018.
  7. Cf. “Maslows’ hierarchy of needs” in Lambert Deckers, Motivation: Biological, Psychological, and Environmental (Oxford: Routledge Press, 2018).
  8. Jimmy Akin, “The Law of Gradualness: 12 things to know and share,” National Catholic Register, October 2014.
Dr. Tiju Thomas About Dr. Tiju Thomas

Dr. Tiju Thomas is in the engineering faculty at Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-M) in Tamil Nadu (India). In addition to his scientific and technical engagements, he has an abiding interest in adult catechesis, and human formation of college students and young professionals. He works with persons and families when they reach out to him for assistance, most often seeking prayer and meaningful life directions. He believes that his Christian vocation includes availability to those who need help in finding hope when they experience suffering. He also writes articles on spirituality (often drawing from the lives of saints) and inter-religious dialogues. Dr. Thomas can be reached at


  1. Francis as pastor? He allowed the gay predation, he never has called it out. the root of the problem. SOme 20000 young men have had their lives ruined. And we know PF has dodged knowing about McCarrick. Nothing pastoral there. Nothing pastoral about PF calling Chileans ‘liars’, ‘crazy’ over obvious sex abuse again by gays. Gay predation has not been a priority on Pf’s list. What are you calling ‘pastoral’? .. seems to justify nothing. PF has put the Catholic Church in deep danger, and we are sinking. He preaches, oddly, church doctrine with his foot in secular leftist camps. It doesn’t work. We have to do a lot more than ‘accompanying’..not to mention the bias in favor of gays against the thousands who have been damaged. Not very pastoral .

  2. Avatar Fr. Timothy Sauppé, S.T.L. says:

    Ah yes, I remember Jesus saying to the woman caught in adultery, ….”Go, and gradually sin no more.”
    Your premise throughout omits the primary role of the pastor. Never once did you mention the care for the soul. Priests and even this Pope, are to be a “Pastor of Souls.” (Vatican II). Your underlying assumption seems to be the same-sex attraction is genetic or otherwise an uncontrollable feature so that all that is necessary is for society to accept same-sex attraction and every thing will be fine. Whereas, from what I read, those with same-sex attraction and are active have a much higher disease rate, are very promiscuous often involves dozens encounters a year, and even if they do get “married” those have a very high rate of divorce (see recent British analysis of a pro-lesbian “wedding planner” who estimates that 1/3 of her unions are now divorced). But the biggest society problem is suicide. Those who are active with same-sex attraction are amongst the highest who died young—if not from disease, then from their own hands.
    I hold it is the height of pastoral ill-responsibility, to not warn someone of these facts (see that doctor out of Boston a few years ago who was dismissed because he gave out a health fact list to his same-sex patients), and not to warn them about the fate of their eternal soul.
    As a thought experiment; replace this article’s subject with say, a slave holder, a man who beats his wife, or a Cardinal who sodomizes seminarians/priests.
    In any event, unfortunately you are on to the Pope’s agenda, he wants to disentangle the natural law from the Church’s moral practice—witness what he is doing to the Pope John Paul II Institute and his silence regarding the Dubia.
    I suppose to you, I’m not rational, or sensitive enough to really understand this issue but I understand this much. If you deal with same-sex attraction your way, you have to deal with every other sin that way too. Priests then are no longer “Pastors of Souls” but some kind of “life coach.”

    • Avatar Mary Jo Klein, PhD says:

      Great response, Father Sauppe! It is not pastoral to refrain from telling the truth. It is not coercion to point out the truth. Same sex unions are a stamp of approval on a sinful life-also not pastoral. There is an obvious difference between loving the sinner and hating the sin. I am very disappointed that HPR published this article-it only creates more confusion.

    • Avatar Catherine Ross says:

      Thank you for your wise comments.

  3. Avatar Michael Brennick says:

    Bergoglio’s understanding of a “law of gradualness” means injecting confusion about Catholic teaching into the public square that will gradually lead to the complete abandonment of that teaching.

    • Avatar David Jamieson says:

      This assessment is spot on. Bergoglio has undermined the Church from the start of his pontificate. How much longer must we endure this little man?

  4. Dcn Peter Lovrick Dcn Peter Lovrick says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful article that is generous in its ideas and sentiments. You describe a thinking through of how to respond to people in what the Church knows are irregular situations, not a thinking through of changing Church teaching. There can be, and should be, disagreements and different views on pastoral responses since they are matters of how we engage, not matters of dogma. Yet, while holding firmly to the truths of the Church, we also hold up compassion, charity and understanding for those who are for whatever reason not living in accord with those truths. We can be faithful to the Church AND be prodigal fathers. Your article helps me see that generosity and understanding do not require giving up Church teaching.; and that advocating Church teaching does not mean we shouldn’t explore how to respond with compassion.

    • Avatar Tiju Thomas says:

      Dear Deacon Peter

      Greetings to you.

      Thank you very much for your generous assessment of this work. Let me thank you for the thoughtful pastoral response you present here.

      I believe your response is an indication of the earnest desire you bring to the table; to do justice to both truth and mercy, in your role as a deacon of our Church.

      May God bless you and keep you & all those close to you safe during these times.

      With warm regards
      Tiju Thomas

  5. What Paul Wood wrote.

  6. Avatar K. C. Thomas says:

    I have no hesitation to say that our Pope creates confusion. There should not be any confusion in the teachings of Christ and His Church. To cite one example — Jesus and His Church hold that marriage is indivisible and for life. Can we bring some very valid reasons and justify divorce ? No, no, that is solved by Jesus when he said – if you want to follow me, carry your cross and follow me.
    Same way homosexual sex activity is sinful and any reason for justification for that life is not admissible. Then why our authorities go on telling something that creates confusion ?

  7. Avatar K. C. Thomas says:

    I feel that our Pope creates confusion in very important issues. Our Lord’s as well as Church’s Teachings are clear. For example the marriage is indivisible and is for life. Can some valid reasons or difficulties be adduced as justification for divorce ? Homosexual sexual acts are sinful. Can we bring some reasons to justify the persons who commit such sins ?
    Then why our Priests like James Martin or Pope cannot be clear and specific when such issues are discussed or dealt with ? Difficulties will be there in life. That is why Christ said, if you want to follow me,carry your cross and follow me

  8. I’m reminded of St. Catherine of Siena. She lived in a time when the popes were far from ideal, and she even, at Christ’s direct command, spent much time advising, exhorting, and correcting them. Yet she did it all with such respect and love–because she respected and loved Christ, Whom the Holy Father represented, notwithstanding his own failings/sins, whatever those were. She had no illusions about the popes of her day; she challenged them to improve. On the other hand, she knew that in-fighting within the Church is a scandal as dangerous as any, and gave her life to preventing it, constantly warning her fellow Christians to work for reform with charity and humility, to approach the pope as sons even if he hasn’t behaved like their father. She writes in one letter, “That which we do to him, we do to Christ in heaven–we honor Christ if we honor the pope; we dishonor Christ if we dishonor the pope.” Might we learn some things from her in our own time?

    • Avatar Tiju Thomas says:

      Dear Ms. Theresa

      I very much appreciate your gentle approach towards fellow Christians, including the Holy Father; ultimately stemming from the honor you wish to give to our Lord.

      Let’s for now seek the intercessions of St. Catherine of Sienna for our world and for the Church.

      Wishing you the peace of Christ,
      Tiju Thomas

  9. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful article that makes important distinctions in how to minister the mercy and love of Jesus Christ to those who live on the margins because of their sexual orientation. In my family, there was a child who identified her same sex attraction at a very young age. Her mother sought to protect her from hateful judgmental people while seeking to find help for her daughter. The last place she would take her daughter for help was the Catholic Church, which would for certain judge her as a sinner. She ended up on drugs and died at a very young age from the effects. I wonder if Jesus when he told the woman who was to be stoned for adultery, “Go and sin no more,” Did he mean that as a judgment of her? He had just saved her life. Maybe it was a pastoral way of helping her to grow into who she was called to be? I often think of this advice from Pope Benedict XV. “It is not fitting to state in an exclusive way: ‘I possess the truth’.“The truth is not possessed by anyone; it is always a gift that calls us to undertake a journey of ever closer assimilation to the truth. Truth can only be known and experienced in freedom; for this reason, we cannot impose truth on others; the truth is disclosed only in an encounter of love.” Perhaps Pope Francis understands what Pope Benedict was advising here. Many of us do not find Pope Francis to be confusing, rather we find him to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.

    Pope Benedict XVI #27 Apostolic Letter on Church in the MIddle East

    • Avatar Tiju Thomas says:

      Dear Tom
      Greetings to you.

      Tom, first of all, I am so thoroughly sorry to hear about this young girl who found no pastoral support when she needed it most. This must have been so hard for your friend, and very likely for the whole family. I hope the family finds healing after the loss of their child. It is going to be a long journey for them, but may they find peace.

      Your friend must have felt somewhat helpless even when her child was alive. I know that it is not easy to feel helpless when a loved one needs help. This is so much more so when we lose a loved one to mental health issues likely induced by societal pressures – which are eminently avoidable but not within our personal control.

      I find Pope Benedict’s idea of discovering truth in a loving encounter, experienced in freedom to be deeply appealing. As we continue our pilgrim journey together, let us hope that we never become like those who are ever willing to pelt stones. It is the easier thing to do, however utterly unlike Christ.

      May God bless you and the family of this friend. May this advent be a season of renewal and joy for you and those who are dear to you.

      Wishing you the peace of our Lord,
      Tiju Thomas

  10. Avatar Tiju Thomas says:

    Dear readers,

    I found this commentary by Bishop Barron on ‘Amoris Laetitia’ to reflect some of the dimensions of pastoral work within the Catholic tradition that are mentioned in this article.

    Also let us hope that this new year brings healing and hope to those whom we have tried to offer pastoral support due to unemployment, financial stress, familial disruption, sickness and psychological ailments.

    Perhaps when encountered with sickness and psychological burdens of the scale and intensity that was seen this past year; we can make it a clearer mission to offer consolations through a better use of the ‘anointing of the sick’.

    May God bless us all and offer us his wisdom, so that we be properly available to those who need the Church and her healing & Christian hope the most.

    Wishing all readers & team of HPR a joy-filled new year, & true
    restoration in Christ,

    Tiju Thomas (Catechist, India)