Pope Francis expressed support for same-sex civil unions in remarks made in a documentary that premiered on Wednesday, a significant break from his predecessors that staked out new ground for the church in its recognition of gay people.
The remarks, coming from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, had the potential to shift debates about the legal status of same-sex couples in nations around the globe and unsettle bishops worried that the unions threaten marriage.
“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered,” Francis said, reiterating his view that gay people are children of God. “I stood up for that.”
Many gay Catholics and their allies outside the church welcomed the pope’s remarks, even as they said they understood Francis’s opposition to gay marriage within the church remained absolute.
His conservative critics within the church hierarchy, and especially in the conservative wing of the church in the United States, who have for years accused him of diluting church doctrine, saw the remarks as a contradiction of church teaching.
Evgeny Afineevsky, the director of the documentary, ‘‘Francesco,’’ which debuted at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday, said that Francis made the remarks directly to him for the film. He did not reply to a question about when the remarks were made by the pope, who had previously supported civil unions as the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Francis has a tendency for off-the-cuff public remarks that maddens both supporters and critics alike. The comments in the film are likely to generate exactly the sort of discussion the pope has repeatedly sought to foster inside the church on issues once considered forbidden in the church’s culture wars.
Francis had already drastically shifted the tone of the church on questions related to homosexuality, but he has done little on policy and not changed doctrine, leading even some of his more liberal supporters to question whether he was mostly talk.
Whether the new remarks will have any bearing on policy is another matter, especially in a church that sees its future growth in African, South American and Asian countries that are less tolerant of homosexuality.
During an extraordinary February 2019 meeting of international church leaders at the Vatican to discuss clerical sexual abuse, for example, bishops from those regions frustrated some Vatican officials, and more liberal bishops from Western Europe, by insisting that pedophilia was linked to homosexuality.
The remarks in the documentary were in keeping with Francis’ general support for gay people, but were perhaps his most specific and prominent on the issue of civil unions, which even traditionally Catholic nations like Italy, Ireland and Argentina have permitted in recent years.
In 2010, as Argentina was on the verge of approving gay marriage, Francis, then cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, came up with a pragmatic solution to protect traditional marriage by supporting the idea of civil unions for gay couples.
As pope in 2014, he told the Corriere della Sera, Italy’s largest newspaper, that nations legalizing civil unions did so mostly to give same-sex partners legal rights and health care benefits and that he couldn’t express a blanket position.
“You have to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety,” he said then.
But Francis’ remarks in the documentary, explicitly supporting civil unions as pope and on camera, had the potential for much greater impact on the debate over the recognition of gay couples by the church.
“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family,’’ Francis says at another point in the documentary. ‘‘They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”
Matteo Bruni, a spokesman for the Vatican, declined to comment until he had seen the movies and the pope’s remarks.
Church teaching does not consider being homosexual a sin, but it does consider homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” and by extension, holds that a homosexual orientation is “objectively disordered.”
Church doctrine also explicitly states that marriage is between a man and a woman, a teaching Francis unwaveringly supports.
Francis’ predecessors had expressed their opposition, though, to civil unions.
In 2003, under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, its doctrinal watchdog then led by the future Pope Benedict XVI, issued “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons.”
The document read, “The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”
Those views were not incorporated into church teaching, but bishops and some bishops conferences, which can be politically influential in certain countries, often opposed civil unions as a threat to traditional marriage.
Advocates within the church for civil unions seized on the pope’s remarks as a major blow to those efforts and as a major breakthrough in the church’s long and painful relationship with gay people.
“This is a major step forward in the church’s relationship with L.G.B.T.Q. people,” said Rev. James Martin a Jesuit priest who has written a book on how to make gay Catholics feel more welcome in the Church, and who has met personally with the pope and served as a consultor for the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications.
“It’s going to be harder for bishops to say that same sex civil unions are a threat against marriage,” he said. “This is unmistakable support.”
Some of the pope’s most consistent critics inside the Catholic hierarchy agreed that the pope seemed to support civil unions, and they were vexed by it.
“The pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the longstanding teaching of the church about same-sex unions,” Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island said in response to the pope’s remarks, which he said needed to be clarified. “The church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships.”
But that does not mean he has altered church teaching on the subject, and Francis has a track record of making encouraging remarks for gay people.
Starting in 2013, on a papal flight back from Brazil, his openness to homosexuals stunned the faithful inside the church, and secular fans outside of it, who were more accustomed to doctrinaire scoldings about homosexuality and gay marriage.
“Who am I to judge,” Francis famously answered when asked about a supposedly gay priest on that flight.
In his landmark 2016 document on the theme of family — titled “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love” — Francis rejected same-sex marriage yet called on priests to be welcoming to people in nontraditional relationships, such as gay people, single parents and unmarried straight couples who live together.
He also once told Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean sexual abuse survivor whom he befriended, and who is a gay person, that “God made you this way and loves you this way, and the pope loves you this way.”
He met personally with Father Martin, who made reaching out to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics the cornerstone of his ministry.
But under Francis, the church also rejected what it cast as the notion that individuals can choose their gender, and he also told the leaders of seminaries that it was better not to admit gays.
“If you have the slightest doubt, it’s better to refuse them” he once said. “Better that they live the ministry or their consecrated life than that they live a double life.”
Critics pointed out that his church’s rules forced gay priests into a double life.
Orignially published in NYT.