This will cause a stir. The New York Times reports that, in a private meeting with bishops in 2010, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio endorsed the idea of civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriage.
The suggestion came in the context of debate over legalizing same-sex marriage in Argentina. Although Cardinal Bergoglio vehemently and publicly opposed the law, the Times reports, at a private meeting of the Catholic bishops conference he supported civil unions as a compromise–“the lesser of two evils,” according to the cardinal’s authorized biographer. According to the Times, this suggestion “inflamed” the meeting, and the conference voted down the suggestion. Argentina eventually legalized same-sex marriage.
The Times argues that “Cardinal Bergoglio’s readiness to reach out across the ideological spectrum and acknowledge civil unions for gay people could raise expectations that he would do the same as pope,” but concedes that Pope Francis may have less need, and ability, to compromise on the issue. Anyway, in political terms, civil unions seems to be an idea whose time has passed–it’s doubtful that gay rights supporters would settle for anything less than marriage at this point.