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Pope Francis endorses same-sex civil unions

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family,” Francis says in a new documentary.

Pope Francis speaking at a podium.
Pope Francis speaks during an International Prayer Meeting for Peace at the Roman Basilica of Aracoeli on October 20, 2020, in Rome, Italy.
Vatican Pool/Getty Images

Pope Francis for the first time as pontiff voiced clear support for civil unions for same-sex couples, in a documentary that premiered Wednesday.

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family,” Francis said in an interview for the film Francesco, according to the Associated Press. “They are children of God.”

The comments made news after the documentary, about the pope’s approaches to a variety of world problems, premiered at the Rome Film Festival. It’s not clear when exactly the remarks were made, but they are a departure from Vatican doctrine, which holds that the Catholic Church’s teachings could not “lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”

The remarks also come at a pivotal time for LGBTQ rights in the United States, where the Senate is soon expected to confirm Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Her confirmation would give conservatives on the Court a 6-3 majority and potentially the votes to overturn prior rulings on issues from marriage equality to employment discrimination against LGBTQ Americans. (Barrett would also be one of six Catholics on the Court.)

Though far from a direct commentary on US politics, the pope’s words are also sure to get attention among Catholic voters with the election less than two weeks away. He may have stopped short of advocating that the church sanctify same-sex marriages, but his remarks were still groundbreaking, especially coming from a popular religious leader.

Pope Francis has a history of making (somewhat) progressive comments on LGBTQ rights

Though the Catholic Church has historically opposed same-sex marriage and relationships, Francis has long taken less of a hard line than previous popes. He made headlines in 2013 when he remarked in an interview, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” He has also made remarks indicating possible support for civil unions in recent years.

And in 2016, Francis said that the church should apologize to gay people and ask forgiveness for its treatment of them. But such comments haven’t been matched by actual Church policy, which does not affirm rights for transgender people and still states that gay people are “called to chastity” because “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” as Vox’s German Lopez reported in 2016. The pope has also said gay men should be heavily scrutinized if they want to join the priesthood: “If you have the slightest doubt, it’s better to refuse them.”

The pope’s comments in Francesco, directed by Evgeny Afineevsky, may be a departure from this doctrine.

“You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this,” Francis says in the film. “What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”

Some Catholic leaders who support LGBTQ rights have praised the comments. “The Pope’s speaking positively about civil unions also sends a strong message to places where the church has opposed such laws,” Rev. James Martin, a priest who has worked to make connections between the church and LGBTQ communities, said in a statement to the AP.

Some are encouraging the pope to go further and recognize same-sex marriages within the church. “We urge Pope Francis to apply the same kind of reasoning to recognize and bless these same unions of love and support within the Catholic Church, too,” Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the LGBTQ Catholic group New Ways Ministry, said in a statement to the AP.

In general, a majority of American Catholics (61 percent) already support same-sex marriage. And the pope’s views may carry weight with those who don’t — 77 percent of US Catholics have a favorable opinion of him as of January 2020, though Democrats like him more than Republicans do.

It’s far from the first time Francis has made a political stir. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he said that then-candidate Donald Trump was “not Christian” in Trump’s comments about immigrants. And earlier this month, he issued an encyclical criticizing “extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism,” which led David Gardner of the Financial Times to wonder if the pope might “tacitly support Joe Biden” for president.

However the pope feels about the upcoming US election, his words are likely to start conversations among Catholics, reigniting questions about what the church’s policies should be in countries — including the US — that don’t always protect LGBTQ rights.