A day after Pope Francis declared his support for same-sex civil unions, Cardinal Sean O’Malley said the pontiff’s support does not represent “an endorsement of homosexual activity.”
O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, made his comments in a statement published Thursday in The Pilot, the newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese.
“Quite understandably, the Holy Father’s recent statements concerning civil unions have captured the attention of the world press, because many people are anxious for the Church to change its position on marriage and family,” O’Malley said. “Pope Francis strongly and consistently teaches that marriage is between a man and woman for a lifetime and that this is God’s plan for having and raising children.”
Francis became the first pontiff to endorse civil unions for same-sex couples in an interview segment for a new documentary, “Francesco,” which premiered Wednesday at the Rome Film Festival.
“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God,” Francis said in a sit-down interview for the film. “You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”
While serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis endorsed civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriages. But he had not come out publicly in favor of civil unions as pope.
In the Boston area, LGBTQ advocates hailed his new stance as a significant step toward inclusion and equality. But Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin called same-sex civil unions “objectively immoral” and said the Catholic Church should not accept them.
“Individuals with same-sex attraction are beloved children of God and must have their personal human rights and civil rights recognized and protected by law,” Tobin said in a statement Wednesday. “However, the legalization of their civil unions, which seek to simulate holy matrimony, is not admissible.”
In his statement, O’Malley said Francis "recognizes that in civil society there can be cogent reasons to enact such laws providing for civil unions which are not the same as the institution of marriage.”
“Pope Francis has seen civil unions as a way for governments to provide protections and health care for couples in long-term, committed relationships, whether they be siblings or friends or partners,” O’Malley said. “Such arrangements are not always of a sexual nature.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, who directs DignityUSA, a Medford group that advocates for LGBTQ Catholics, said she hoped Francis’s endorsement “will represent a step towards full inclusion and legal protection of same-sex couples and their families, and not a compromise that allows some legal protections, but not full equality that marriage provides.”
O’Malley said Francis is “very aware of the suffering and alienation of homosexual individuals, gay people, who are rejected by family and society.”
“He is also keenly aware of the parents and loved ones who also suffer because a member of their family is bullied or marginalized for being different,” he said. "Our task is to show people that we love them and care about them and that together we can strive to be better people, more generous, more courageous and more faithful to what God is calling us to do.”
Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus, said it was “disappointing” to read O’Malley’s “edits and rewrites of the pope’s statements.”
Isaacson said that the Catholic Church has historically stood against laws giving equal rights to the LGBTQ community, and said that there was once a time that she never would have imagined a pope publicly supporting civil unions.
“It was and it is deeply meaningful that the pope publicly stated that he supports civil unions,” Isaacson said in an interview. “However, having said that, let’s get real, civil unions are not the same as civil marriage, and civil marriage is what we fought for and won, and civil marriage is what we will strive to retain.”
Isaacson said that despite O’Malley’s attempts, he can’t take back the pope’s words.
"He may wish to do that, but I think the pope’s words speak for themselves, Isaacson said. “We all heard about them, we all read them, and we were all deeply touched by them and deeply appreciative.”
Globe Correspondent Adam Sennott contributed to this story. Material from the Associated Press was also used in this report.