VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis waded diplomatically into the gay marriage debate Friday, telling the Archbishop of Canterbury he wants to work together to promote family values “based on marriage.”
Francis, who vigorously opposed gay marriage in his native Argentina, and Archbishop Justin Welby chatted, prayed and had lunch together at the Vatican in their first encounter since both were installed in March.
Welby, the spiritual leader of the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion, has opposed proposed legislation in Britain that would legalize gay marriage, saying it seeks to abolish and redefine the institution and would weaken one of the cornerstones of society.
He delivered a speech last week before the House of Lords before it moved the gay marriage bill one step closer to becoming law. The legislation would enable gay couples to get married in both civil and religious ceremonies in England and Wales.
In his remarks to Welby, Francis said he hoped they could collaborate in promoting the sacredness of life “and the stability of families founded on marriage.” Significantly, though, Francis didn’t specify that marriage should be based on a union between a man and woman, which is how Benedict XVI and John Paul II routinely defined it in a way that made clear their opposition to same-sex marriage.
Vatican officials said Francis’ phrasing was a diplomatic attempt to make his point without making a provocative pronouncement, particularly during an inaugural meeting with Welby that was aimed at getting to know one another. Francis though has steered clear of the gay marriage debate as it has recently roiled France and Britain, and in general has refrained from making headline-grabbing public comments on hot-button current issues.
Welby said the pope’s remarks, both in the public speech he delivered and their 30-minute private meeting, showed that “we were absolutely at one on the issues, and equally at one in our condemnation of homophobic behavior and our sense that the essential dignity of the human being is where you start.”
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio didn’t shy away from voicing strong opposition to gay marriage, though he was pragmatic in sensing Argentina was heading in that direction.
Realizing the church couldn’t win the fight outright, Bergoglio urged his fellow Argentine bishops to lobby for gay civil unions instead, according to the then-cardinal’s authorized biographer. The bishops shot down the proposal and the church lost the issue altogether when the South American nation legalized gay marriage in 2010 — the first country in the region to do so.