In comments that aired in a new documentary that released on Wednesday, Pope Francis gave his clearest support to the LGBTQ community yet, calling for “civil union laws” to provide legal backing to same-sex relationships.
“What we have to create is a civil union law,” the pope says in the movie, which was released in Rome. “That way they are legally covered.”
This doesn’t exactly amount to an official shift in Catholic doctrine but the pope’s words do mark an enormous departure from the Church’s historic position. Francis has been noted for speaking to the LGBTQ community with more open and inclusive language than many of his predecessors, but this appears to be the first time he has called for substantive policies.
“This is the first time as pope he’s making such a clear statement,” Reverend James Martin told the Washington Post. “I think it’s a big step forward. In the past, even civil unions were frowned upon in many quarters of the church. He is putting his weight behind legal recognition of same-sex civil unions.”
Same-sex civil unions are not the same thing as same-sex marriage and the documentary, called Franceso, does not show the Pope budging on the question of marriage. But he does say that “homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family” and “They’re children of God …Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”
“The Holy Father is not saying that same-sex civil unions qualify as marriage or that they are in any way comparable to it,” Catholic author Dawn Eden Goldstein told RNS. “The pope’s words about civil unions change nothing about the way the Church perceives such unions on a moral or doctrinal level.”
Nevertheless, the reactions to the pope’s words ran the gamut from celebration to dismissal. The Southern Baptist Convention denounced the Pope’s words, with SBC president J.D. Greear writing that “No matter what a pope, pastor or elected official says, we do not get to define sexuality or the family, the Creator does, and on this His Word could not be more clear.”
Some Catholic leaders were similarly cool on the pope’s comments, with Thomas Tobin, the bishop of Providence, saying the Pope’s statement “clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the Church about same-sex unions.”
But others welcomed the shift. J.R. Zerkowski, the executive director of Fortunate Families, told the National Catholic Reporter that he was “delighted that he said the words and that he spoke out as a matter of justice for gay people.”
“I believe it’s nothing outside of Catholic social teaching,” Zerkowski continued. “Shocking as it is, it’s sort of not shocking as well. Obviously it’s not the first time he’s spoken about the topic.”