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Pope Francis faces divided Catholic Church after backing same-sex civil unions

“I am really scandalized by his defense of homosexual union, which surely leads to immoral acts,” retired bishop Arturo Bastes of the Philippines said.
Image: Pope Francis delivers the weekly Angelus prayer as it is streamed via video over the internet from inside the Vatican
Pope Francis delivers the weekly Angelus prayer as it is streamed via video from inside the Vatican.Vatican Media / Reuters

Pope Francis' surprise endorsement of same-sex civil unions reverberated through the Roman Catholic world Thursday, with his comments prompting criticism but also support — including from the strongman leader of Asia’s largest Catholic nation.

Even before the pope's comments Wednesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte supported a law that would recognize civil unions in same-sex relationships, his spokesman said in a televised briefing.

Now, even the most conservative of the country’s Catholic lawmakers should “no longer have a basis” to object to them, the spokesman, Harry Roque, said.

Despite the Philippines being a devoutly Catholic nation, there is high acceptance of LGBTQ rights, a recent poll has shown. Still, conservative Catholic politicians have resisted legislation to recognize same-sex civil union or marriage fearing the ire of influential church leaders.

Addressing Francis' remarks, retired Bishop Arturo Bastes of the Philippines said he “had very serious doubts about the moral correctness” of the pontiff’s position.

“This is a shocking statement coming from the pope,” Bastes told reporters in a cellphone message Thursday, The Associated Press reported. “I am really scandalized by his defense of homosexual union, which surely leads to immoral acts.”

Catholic teaching holds that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered."

A 2003 document from the Vatican's doctrine office, then led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, stated that the church's respect for homosexuals "cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions."

Following Francis' remarks in a documentary, Thomas Tobin, the conservative bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, 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."

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The definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman remains intact regardless of the pope’s remarks on same-sex unions, Brian Burch, president of the conservative group CatholicVote, said.

Francis “has no ability to change that teaching about the permanence and exclusivity of marriage,” Burch told the AP.

NBC News has requested comment from the Vatican on the pope's remarks, but has not heard back. The pope’s comments have not been reflected in any official Vatican documents or sermons.

The pope’s statement came as part of a documentary about his life that aired in Rome on Wednesday, in which he said homosexuals were “children of God" who have a right to a family, and added that a civil union law is necessary to protect their rights.

While serving as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis opposed legislation to approve same-sex marriage, but supported legal protection for the rights of gay couples.

However, he had never come out publicly in favor of same-sex civil unions as the pope. Neither has any pontiff before him.

Francis has ruffled many feathers during his papacy with his progressive views on inequality, migration and climate change.

In a well-known quote from 2013, he said, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests.

He has also ministered to gays and transsexual prostitutes, and welcomed people in gay partnerships into his inner circle.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.