VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis spoke in favor of civil unions for LGBTQ couples in a documentary presented in Rome on Wednesday (Oct. 21), departing from official church teaching for the first time as pontiff.
“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family,” the pope said in an interview for the documentary “Francesco,” directed by Oscar and Emmy nominee Evgeny Afineevsky and presented at the Rome film festival.
“They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it,” he added.
The film will be released in the United States on Sunday.
In the documentary, Francis suggested the need for “a civil union law,” which would allow LGBTQ couples to be “legally covered.” He also stated he has supported this position in the past.
While an archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Francis supported civil unions among gay couples as a compromise to ensure their legal protection while not challenging Catholic teaching.
Though several bishops’ conferences and prelates have voiced their support for civil unions for LGBTQ couples, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, charged with presenting and defending the church’s teaching, has stated in numerous documents that Catholics must not support gay unions and even have a duty to object to such unions, civil or otherwise.
It would be a mistake to interpret the pope’s recent comments as a shift in the Catholic Church’s position toward homosexuality, according to Dawn Eden Goldstein, a Catholic author who has taught in seminaries and holds a doctorate in sacred theology.
“The Holy Father is not saying that same-sex civil unions qualify as marriage or that they are in any way comparable to it,” Goldstein said in a statement sent to Religion News Service on Wednesday. “The pope’s words about civil unions change nothing about the way the Church perceives such unions on a moral or doctrinal level.”
Prelates who are considered conservative have also spoken out in favor of civil unions. Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, a protégé of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, voiced approval of civil unions in a 2016 interview with Stern magazine.
“Personally, I find it touching that at a time when marriage is losing its radiance, couples who feel and live homosexuality want that ultimate form of partnership,” Schönborn said, while acknowledging the Catholic Church remains firm in its belief that marriage is founded in the union between a man and a woman.
Progressive clergy have welcomed the pope’s recent remarks. In a tweet Wednesday, LGBTQ advocate and Jesuit priest James Martin called Francis’ words “a major step forward in the church’s support for LGBTQ people.”
Pope Francis has been perceived as more open and understanding toward LGBTQ people since his famous 2013 response “who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests in the Catholic Church. The pope has met with homosexual couples several times during his pontificate and sent support to a transsexual community struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite this outlook of mercy and openness, Francis has done little to address the church’s position on homosexuality in practice. When Italy was considering allowing civil unions for gay couples in 2016, Pope Francis told Vatican judges there can be “no confusion between the family God wants and any other type of union.”
“The family,” he said on that occasion, is “founded on indissoluble matrimony that unites and allows procreation.”
The latest comment by Pope Francis focuses on guaranteeing health and legal protections for LBGTQ couples but doesn’t suggest any change in Catholic doctrine, according to professor Bruce Morrill, who holds the Edward A. Malloy Chair of Catholic Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee.
“That is a characteristic of his entire papacy, namely, the pope continuously makes individual pastorally and compassionately (he would say, mercifully) guided statements and, yet, he has done nothing to change official doctrine or polity,” Morrill told RNS on Wednesday.
The documentary touches on multiple aspects of Francis’ pontificate, from the economy to immigration to the environment and global inequalities. During the lengthy interview that makes up the backbone of the feature, the pope also took a jab at child separation policies at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Addressing the immigration policies of the Trump administration directly, Pope Francis said that the separation of immigrant families at the border is “a cruelty” that “goes against natural rights.” These remarks echo one Francis made in a 2018 interview with Reuters, in which he condemned such policies as “contrary to our Catholic values” and “immoral.”
Numerous figures close to this pontificate are interviewed in the documentary, including his predecessor Benedict XVI, family members and papal allies such as Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who heads the Vatican department for evangelization, and Monsignor Charles Scicluna, adjunct secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“Francesco” also documents the numerous pre-pandemic travels led by the pontiff and his role in addressing calamities and wars in Syria, the Central African Republic and Ukraine, as well as his advocacy for immigrants who die at sea.
The wide scope of the documentary led Rosetta Sannelli, who will award the film with the Kinéo Movie for Humanity Award at the Vatican on Thursday, to describe it as “a historical work in every way.”
Nor does the documentary shy away from describing the struggles faced by Pope Francis, from his role in Argentina’s “dirty war” to his behavior toward victims of clerical sexual abuse in Chile. Survivor Juan Carlos Cruz was at the film festival in Rome to express his support for the documentary.
“I was scolded for my homosexuality,” Cruz told reporters at the event. “But the pope told me something different: God made gay people and God loves you, the church loves you, the pope loves you. So many gay people have called me in tears once this phrase was shared. This is what Bergoglio showed the world.”
This is an ongoing story and will be updated.