At some point yesterday, I became aware of Pope Francis' approval of civil union as an option for same-sex couples, the comment that was part of a documentary released yesterday (October 21).
To be honest, my first thought was to wonder if this approval was truly newsworthy. Hadn't he already signaled his support?
Yes in some ways his support has been there, but yesterday may have been the clearest statement of approval. I have Catholic friends who pointed out that he's not opening up the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples, but that his approval of civil unions is a step forward.
I know that some people might be frustrated with these steps forward, at how small they seem. I know that some people might wonder why the Supreme Court of the U.S. is moving forward at a faster pace than the pope.
Some people might say that the pronouncements of a pope no longer matter at all. But that's not true; this article in The Washington Post tells us otherwise: "Researchers have found that people are more likely to express support for same-sex marriage when they have been exposed to that message from an “in-group” leader, such as a politician or a pastor. In one experiment, [Brian] Harrison* found that religious participants who read a statement in support of gay rights written by a prominent religious figure were more likely to agree than if the statement had been written by an anonymous writer."
I saw this tweet from James J. Martin, a famous writer who is a Catholic priest: "For those who think the Pope's comments about same-sex civil unions are no big deal: Perhaps in the US or Western Europe. But in places like Poland, where some bishops are virulently anti-LGBT; or Uganda, where bishops side with laws criminalizing homosexuality, it's a big deal."
And let's put the matter in terms that are more stark. In many parts of the world, homosexuality isn't just a crime, it's a crime punishable by death. Will those places immediately change because of the pronouncements of the pope? Probably not.
But the history of social change shows us that these changes happen incrementally--the landscape won't change immediately, but in 10 or 20 years, it will be different. The pronouncements of religious leaders do still shape the direction. And although I'm not Catholic, I'm glad that the pope is helping to move the world towards more inclusivity.
*Harrison is a political science lecturer at the University of Minnesota.