“On Gay Unions, a Pragmatist Before He Was a Pope”
BUENOS AIRES — The very idea was anathema to many of the bishops in the room. Argentina was on the verge of approving gay marriage, and the Roman Catholic Church was desperate to stop that from happening. It would lead tens of thousands of its followers in protest on the streets of Buenos Aires and publicly condemn the proposed law, a direct threat to church teaching, as the work of the devil. But behind the scenes, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who led the public charge against the measure, spoke out in a heated meeting of bishops in 2010 and advocated a highly unorthodox solution: that the church in Argentina support the idea of civil unions for gay couples.
The concession inflamed the gathering — and offers a telling insight into the leadership style he may now bring to the papacy. Few would suggest that Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is anything but a stalwart who fully embraces the church’s positions on core social issues. But as he faced one of the most acute tests of his tenure as head of Argentina’s church, he showed another side as well, supporters and critics say: that of a deal maker willing to compromise and court opposing sides in the debate, detractors included.
The approach stands in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who spent 25 years as the church’s chief doctrinal enforcer before becoming pope, known for an unbending adherence to doctrinal purity. Francis, by comparison, spent decades in the field, responsible for translating such ideals into practice in the real world, sometimes leading to a different approach.
“The melody may be the same, but the sound is completely different,” Alberto Melloni, the director of the liberal Catholic John XXIII Foundation for Religious Science in Bologna, Italy, said of the two. Faced with the near certain passage of the gay marriage bill, Cardinal Bergoglio offered the civil union compromise as the “lesser of two evils,” said Sergio Rubin, his authorized biographer. “He wagered on a position of greater dialogue with society.”
In the end, though, a majority of the bishops voted to overrule him, his only such loss in his six-year tenure as head of Argentina’s bishops’ conference. But throughout the contentious political debate, he acted as both the public face of the opposition to the law and as a bridge-builder, sometimes reaching out to his critics. “He listened to my views with a great deal of respect,” said Marcelo Márquez, a gay rights leader and theologian who wrote a tough letter to Cardinal Bergoglio and, to his surprise, received a call from him less than an hour after it was delivered. “He told me that homosexuals need to have recognized rights and that he supported civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.” Mr. Márquez said he went on to meet twice with Cardinal Bergoglio, telling him of his plan to marry his partner and discussing theology. The man who would become pope gave him a copy of his biography, “The Jesuit.”
Cardinal Bergoglio’s readiness to reach out across the ideological spectrum and acknowledge civil unions for gay people could raise expectations that he would do the same as pope. But some of this strategic flexibility may have stemmed as much from Francis’ position at the time as from his personal ideology….