In a new, ready-for-Ash Wednesday interview, Pope Francis hinted that the Catholic Church may consider accepting the idea of valid, same-sex civil unions. Kind of. The Pope told Italian daily Corriere della Sera that he (and the Church) believes "matrimony is between a man and a woman," but added that he understood attempts to "regulate diverse situations of cohabitation (are) driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care." According to the Catholic News Service's translation of the interview, the pope said that "it is necessary to look at the diverse cases and evaluate them in their variety" when asked about the extent to which the church will embrace that trend.
We've been through this before with Pope Francis's encouraging statements on LGBT individuals and rights, but it's worth repeating that the statement here isn't an endorsement of same-sex unions, nor is it really a change on the church's long-standing social issues policies. To be sure, Francis is not interested in having the church be seen as a "judge," condemning gay individuals, but he's also not going to change the church's position against same-sex marriage — nor is he ready to define what sort of legal arrangements the Church might be able to accept for same-sex couples, at least not yet. In fact, the Pope paired his remarks on civil unions with a rebuke of his image in the media as a reformer:
"To depict the pope as a sort of superman, a sort of star, seems offensive to me. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps tranquilly and has friends like everyone else, a normal person."
The "superman" here might very well be a reference to a bit of Roman graffiti that popped up in January, depicting him as a comic-book style super hero. Francis also said that he was uncomfortable with the "mythology" surrounding his particular take on the papacy (which might be kind of awkward for the Italian publishers behind a brand new fan magazine all about Francis). Francis repeatedly sought to clarify the question of whether he's actually interested in reforming the Vatican's doctrine or not, saying that "it's not a question of changing the doctrine but going deeper so that pastoral concern takes into account situations and what can be done for people."
At the same time, Francis's comments, like many of his remarks on social issues, are notable for a change in tone. CNS notes that this is the first time a Pope has even suggested that the Church might be open to considering civil unions of some sort. However, such a development doesn't seem likely to actually happen anytime soon. And even if it does, the Vatican will find that its stance on the issue trails behind public opinion in some parts of the world.