Does Pope Francis support civil unions for same-sex couples? That question has been raised a number of times since disputed rumours emerged last year that while serving as an archbishop in Argentina he had proposed civil unions as a compromise to the country's then-proposed same-sex "marriage" law.
Now, in a new wide-ranging interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera (Evening Courier), published to mark the anniversary of his pontificate, Pope Francis gave a carefully nuanced response to the media speculation. Catholic News Agency has provided an English translation.
Asked whether the Catholic Church can "understand" the path taken by some countries of creating "civil unions", the pope responded, "Marriage is between a man and a woman."
However, he added, "Secular states want to have civil unions to regulate different situations of cohabitation, pushed by the demand to regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring health care. It is about forms of cohabitation of various types, of which I wouldn't know how to list the different ways."
As to how to judge such proposals, the pope would only say, "One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety."
Claims that the pope supports civil unions received widespread attention shortly after his election, when the New York Times published an article quoting Cardinal Bergoglio's authorised biographer, Sergio Rubin, who said that the pope had supported such unions behind the scenes in Argentina.
That claim was subsequently disputed by a confidante of Cardinal Bergoglio's, Miguel Woite, the director of the Argentinean Catholic Information Agency (ACIA). The story, he said, "isn't true. It's a complete error."
In the Corriere della Sera interview, the Holy Father also addressed several other hot-button topics, including contraception and divorce. In response to a question about Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which famously reiterated the Catholic Church's long-standing opposition to artificial birth control, the pope hailed the encyclical as "prophetic" and praised Paul VI's "genius".
Paul VI "had the courage to place himself against the majority, defending the moral discipline, exercising a culture brake, opposing present and future neo-Malthusianism", said Pope Francis.
However, the pope added that "Paul VI himself, at the end, recommended to confessors much mercy, and attention to concrete situations." The question, Francis concluded, "is not that of changing the doctrine but of going deeper and making pastoral (ministry) take into account the situations and that which it is possible for people to do".
He also indicated that contraception is one of the topics that will be taken up at the upcoming synod on the families. That synod is also widely expected to address the situation of divorced Catholics who have contracted a second civil marriage.
Pope Francis spoke of the necessity of the synod, expressing concern at the current situation of the family. "Few young people marry," he said. "There are many separated families in which the project of common life has failed. The children suffer greatly."
"We must give a response," he added, saying that such a response cannot take the form of "casuistry", which he described as "a simplification of profound things".
"It is in light of deep reflection that we will be able to seriously confront particular situations, also those of the divorced, with pastoral depth."
The pope was also asked about a controversial keynote address given by Cardinal Walter Kasper during the recent consistory, in which the cardinal had appeared to propose that the Catholic Church should create a kind of second-tier of marriage that would allow for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments, including Holy Communion. This would occur "after a period of penance" but without repenting or changing their situation.
That proposal was recently criticised by Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro, head of the Rome office of Human Life International as an "offence" against the doctrine of the Church, and as a logical contradiction.
Pope Francis avoided directly agreeing or disagreeing with Cardinal Kasper's proposal, saying only that he thought the cardinal "made a beautiful and profound presentation", and indicating that he welcomed various opinions.
"I would have been concerned if in the consistory there wasn't an intense discussion," he added. "It wouldn't have served for anything. The cardinals knew that they could say what they wanted, and they presented many different points of view that are enriching. The fraternal and open comparisons make theological and pastoral thought grow. I am not afraid of this, actually I seek it."
In the interview, Pope Francis also defended Pope Benedict's and the Catholic Church's record in responding to the sex abuse crisis. Pointing out that the statistics show that most abuse takes place in the family, he argued that no other public institution "has done more" to face the problem. He regretted the fact that the Church "is the only one to be attacked".