Pope Francis: Civil unions pragmatist?

During a 2010 bishops meeting, Cardinal Bergoglio tried to broker a gay unions deal as "the lesser of two evils"

Published March 20, 2013 1:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Gregorio Borgia)
(AP/Gregorio Borgia)

During the 2010 run-up to legalize same-sex marriage in Argentina, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio denounced the proposal as "a destructive pretension against the plan of God." But in private, former colleagues say the cardinal worked earnestly for a compromise on the issue.

According to a report in the New York Times, Bergoglio tried to persuade a 2010 meeting of Catholic bishops to support civil unions for gay couples.

Realizing that the gay marriage measure was sure to pass, the man who would be pope advocated for gay unions as the "lessor of two evils," according to his authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin. “He wagered on a position of greater dialogue with society.”

“Bergoglio’s thinking was very clearly demonstrated both with what he said and in the message of his pastoral work,” said Roxana Alfieri, a social worker in the communications department of the bishops’ central office in Buenos Aires who was present at the 2010 meeting. “He didn’t want the church to take a position of condemning people but rather of respect for their rights like any vulnerable person.”

The bishops rejected Bergoglio's proposal, while the Argentine Senate passed a measure to legalize gay marriage in July of that year.

Bergoglio failed to broker a church compromise on gay unions, but the incident may provide some insight into the new pontiff's style of leadership.

As the Times notes:

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.

But many who witnessed Bergoglio's public hard-line persona -- even while he quietly pushed for compromise -- are not as convinced by the new pope's apparent pragmatism:

“The reality, beyond what he may have said in private meetings, was that he said some terrible things in public,” Esteban Paulón, president of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals, said. “He took a role, in public, that was determinedly combative.”

In addition to supporting widespread protests against gay marriage, Bergoglio called the political battle to defeat the measure "God's war" and denounced gay parenting as "the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts."

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Cardinal Bergoglio Civil Unions Gay Marriage Pope Francis