Pope Francis called for the passage of civil union laws for same-sex couples in a documentary that aired in Rome on Wednesday, in a major departure from the position held by the Vatican’s doctrinal office.
“Homosexuals have a right to be part of the family,” the pontiff said in “Francesco,” a documentary about his life. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”
“What we have to create is a civil union law,” he added. “That way, they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”
While serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis endorsed civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriages. However, he had never come out publicly in favor of civil unions as the pope.
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"It’s not surprising coming from Pope Francis because of the trail of individual statements he has made here and there over his papacy," Prof. Bruce Morrill, the Chair in Roman Catholic Studies at Nashville's Vanderbilt University, told NBC News by telephone.
"Roman Catholicism does focus on natural law and it seems to me he’s touching on a different aspect of this, which is that human beings are inclined towards and need these kinds of personal relationships. The elephant in the room is obviously sexual activity which the church very explicitly teaches against," he added.
Morrill, a Jesuit priest, added that one of Francis' characteristics was "that he likes to speak and act on the principle of mercy."
"What this statement doesn’t do is change any official policies, but in a very patriarchal way he is saying we should be kind and compassionate," he said.
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 behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions."
Doing so, the Vatican reasoned, would not only condone "deviant behavior," but create an equivalence to marriage, which the church holds is an indissoluble union between man and woman.
Directed by the Oscar-nominated Evgeny Afineevsky, a Russian-born Jew, “Francesco” depicts Francis as the great connector, placing him at the heart of a narrative that casts a wide net over some of the world's most pressing problems.
The documentary tackles other topical issues such as the growing rich-poor gap, racism, climate change, sexual abuse, migration, human trafficking, political polarization and relations among Christians, Muslims and Jews.
It also highlights the fact that he completely misjudged the scale and the severity of the church's sexual abuse crisis, and that he later publicly recognized his mistake and apologized.
Francis spoke in a section of the movie about Andrea Rubera, a gay man who adopted three children with his partner.
Rubera said that he explained to the pope in a letter that they wanted to bring the children up as Catholics in the local parish but did not know how they would be received. It is not clear where they live.
The pontiff telephoned him several days later, telling him he was moved by the letter and urging the couple to introduce their children to the parish but to be ready for opposition, Rubera said, adding that they took the advice and were happy that they did.
It also features Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of clergy sexual abuse. Cruz said that during their first meetings in 2018, Francis assured him that God made him gay.
The documentary will have its North American premier at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, which runs from Oct. 24-31.
Francis' comments were welcomed by Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of the LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD.
"This news should send an undeniable message to Catholic families with LGBTQ people that all family members are deserving of acceptance and support," she said in a statement. "Pope Francis’ public approval is a fundamental step forward at a time when LGBTQ acceptance around the world and across religions is expanding and rightfully becoming the norm."
However, the conservative bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, 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."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.