Pope Francis endorses civil union laws for gay couples in new documentary

Pope Francis says in a new film released on Wednesday that homosexuals should be protected by civil union laws, in some of the clearest language he has used on the rights of gays.

Pontiff made comments in documentary Francesco

Pope Francis's comments about civil unions are consistent with those he made as Argentina's archbishop, but the most definitive during his time as leader of the Catholic Church. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis endorsed same-sex civil unions for the first time as pope while being interviewed for the feature-length documentary Francesco, which had its premiere at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday.

Francis's comments came midway through the film, which delves into issues he cares about most, including the environment, poverty, migration, racial and income inequality and the people most affected by discrimination.

"Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God," Francis said in one of his sit-down interviews for the film. "What we have to have is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered."

Francis, believed to be the first pope to use the word gay publicly, famously told a reporter in 2013, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"

Three years later in a papal exhortation, Francis said, "every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while 'every sign of unjust discrimination' is to be carefully avoided, par­ticularly any form of aggression and violence."

Evolving views on homosexuality

Francis has never come out publicly in favour of civil unions as pope.

While serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis endorsed civil unions for gay couples, but he criticized a gay marriage bill passed into law in Argentina in 2010 as a "destructive attack on God's plan."

He has also been opposed to adoption by gays.

One of the main characters in the documentary is Juan Carlos Cruz, the Chilean survivor of clergy sexual abuse whom Francis initially discredited during a 2018 visit to Chile.

Cruz, who is gay, said that during his first meetings with the pope in May 2018, Francis assured him that God made Cruz gay. Cruz tells his own story in snippets throughout the film, chronicling both Francis's evolution on understanding sexual abuse as well as documenting the Pope's views on gay people.

WATCH | The trailer for documentary Francesco:

A Jesuit priest who has been at the forefront in seeking to build bridges with gays in the church, Rev. James Martin, praised the Pope's comments as "a major step forward in the church's support for LGBT people."

"The Pope's speaking positively about civil unions also sends a strong message to places where the church has opposed such laws," Martin said in a statement.

Pushback begins

However, the conservative bishop of Providence, R.I., Thomas Tobin, immediately called for clarification.

"The Pope's statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the church about same-sex unions," Tobin said in a statement. "The church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships."

Catholic teaching holds that gays must be treated with dignity and respect but that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered." A 2003 document from the Vatican's doctrine office stated that the church's respect for gays "cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions."

Doing so, the Vatican reasoned, would not only condone "deviant behaviour," but create an equivalence to marriage, which the church holds is an indissoluble union between man and woman.

That document was signed by the then-prefect of the office, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI and Francis's predecessor.

Since becoming pontiff, Francis has ministered to gays and transsexual prostitutes, and welcomed people in gay partnerships into his inner circle. One of them was his former student, Yayo Grassi, who along with his partner visited Francis at the Vatican's Washington, D.C., embassy during the Pope's 2015 visit to the U.S.

Documentarian Evgeny Afineevsky is shown last week in Rome. Afineevsky, who has previously directed documentaries about crises in Ukraine and Syria, was given extensive access to Francis and followed him on several of the Pope's travels. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

The Vatican publicized that encounter, making video and photos of it available, after Francis was ambushed during that same visit by his then-ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who invited the anti-gay marriage activist Kim Davis to meet with the Pope.

News of the Davis audience made headlines at the time and was viewed by conservatives as a papal stamp of approval for Davis, who was jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licences. The Vatican, however, vigorously sought to downplay it, with the Vatican spokesman saying the meeting by no means indicated Francis's support for her or her position on gay marriage.

Director Evgeny Afineevsky, who received an Oscar nomination for his 2015 documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom, had access to cardinals, the Vatican television archives and the Pope himself in making the film. 

With files from CBC News