Pope Francis endorsed same-sex civil unions for his first time as head of the Catholic Church, in comments revealed in a documentary that premiered in Rome Wednesday.
“What we have to create is a civil union law,” Francis told filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky during a sit-down interview in the feature-length documentary Francesco. “That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”
Francis had previously expressed support for civil unions for same-sex couples during his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires, although this was as part of failed efforts to block a same-sex marriage law in Argentina and keep marriage as a heterosexual institution.
He hasn’t spoken out in favour of civil unions since becoming Pope in 2013.
Asked by Afineevsky about the place of LGBTQI people in the church, Francis said they were welcome in the Catholic “family”.
“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family,” the Pope said. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it.”
The landmark comments were immediately welcomed by pro-LGBTQI Catholic groups as a massive step forward.
“It is an historic moment when the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, long seen as a persecutor of LGBTQ people, moves in such a supportive direction for lesbian/gay couples and their families,” Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry said in a statement.
He said the Pope’s comments — his strongest statement ever in support of civil unions — would have a momentous effect on how members of the church treated the rainbow community.
“When the pope says something positive about LGBTQ issues, he sends forth an enormous wave of goodwill to LGBTQ people, and, at the same time, teaches a positive lesson to people whose anti-LGBTQ views are religiously-based,” he said.
“It is no overstatement to say that with this statement not only has the Pope protected LGBTQ couples and families, but he also will save many LGBTQ lives.”
Gerard Swan, chair of the British group Quest, told VICE News that his organisation celebrated the Pope’s comments as an important endorsement of the value of same-sex civil unions.
“This would seem to us to be in line with the Catholic Church’s teaching on the fundamental dignity that LGBT+ people share with all human beings, and how this manifests in civil society and in civil law.”
The 83-year-old pontiff, considered a reformer in the Vatican, has previously made statements in support of LGBTQI Catholics, angering some conservative factions within the Church. In 2013, he famously responded to question about gay priests: “Who am I to judge?” Last month, he told a group of parents of gay children that God loved them “as they are” because they were “the children of God.”
But he hasn’t always taken such a progressive stance. In On Heaven and Earth, a 2010 book of conversations between Francis — then known as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio — and an Argentine rabbi, the soon-to-be Pope argues that giving same-sex relationships equal legal recognition with heterosexual marriages would be “an anthropological regression.”
More recently, in the 2017 book Politics and Society, consisting of conversations between the Pope and a French sociologist, he criticised “gender ideology,” saying: “[c]hildren are learning that they can choose their own sex. Why is sex, being a woman or a man, a choice and not a fact of nature?”
He’s also previously criticised same-sex adoption, saying every child needed a mother and father.
DeBernardo said that traditionally Catholic countries from Europe to Latin America had been passing civil union and marriage equality laws for some time, indicating that “overwhelming majorities of Catholic citizens support legal protections for same-gender couples.”
He called on Francis to build on his latest statements by allowing for same-sex couples to receive blessings from the church — as bishops and theologians in the German-speaking church had been calling for for years — and lending his support for full civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.
The documentary heavily features Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse in Chile, who has struck up a friendship with Francis.
Cruz revealed in the documentary that Francis had told him, during their discussions of sexuality: “God made you gay. God loves you like you are, and you have to love yourself.”