Pope Francis called on the Catholic Church and its leaders to explore civil unions and how they provide for the economic security and well-being of same-sex couples, according to an interview with an Italian newspaper today.
Speaking to Corriere della Sera, the 77-year-old Argentine pontiff said that some governments legalize civil unions "to regularize different situations of living together," citing the need to provide stronger economic conditions, including access to health care, for a variety of couples.
"We have to look at the different cases and evaluate them in their variety," he said, according to a translation from Vatican Insider.
Contrary to published reports, the pope did not endorse the notion of civil unions, but instead admitted that new realities must be examined. He maintained the church's long-held belief that "marriage is between a man and a woman."
Francis, who was named Person of the Year by The Advocate in December, has seemingly given plausibility to rumors that he once advocated for the adoption of civil union legislation in Argentina.
In his role as president of the Argentine bishops' conference, then-Cardinal Jose Bergoglio reportedly offered a compromise to the more conservative faction of Catholic bishops there, who opposed any change in marriage laws, and the government that was pushing marriage equality. He purportedly suggested that civil unions would not be at odds with the Catholic Church.
Though these rumors have not been confirmed by the Vatican or the church in Argentina, according to a March 2013 report from the New York Times, Bergoglio's biographer, Sergio Rubin, said that the archbishop offered the civil union compromise as the "lesser of two evils." "He wagered on a position of greater dialogue with society," Rubin said.
Pope Francis, the first from the Americas, has signaled a new openness to LGBT people in the Catholic Church in his first year on the job.
In an interview with the Jesuit magazine America last September, the pope suggested that the church had obsessed on abortion and same-sex marriage, issues that "do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ," he said.
"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods," he said. "This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context."
In July of last year, speaking to reporters while on a flight from World Youth Day in Brazil back to the Vatican, the pope uttered his now famous "Who am I to judge?" remark when asked about gay priests.
Though hailed by progressives for shifting the church's emphasis from neuralgic social issues to poverty and economic justice, Pope Francis appears to be in line with Catholic teaching on a variety of hot-button issues, but seeks to change how the church approaches people trying to live their faith.
For example, in the Corriere della Sera interview, he said that the church would not revisit its prohibition on contraception.
Praising Pope Paul VI, who authored the papal encyclical Humane vitae that definitively banned the use of contraception, Pope Francis nonetheless said that the church should consider "going into the issue in depth and bringing it about that the pastoral practice takes account of situations and of what is possible for persons," according to Vatican Insider.
Both same-sex marriage and contraception are expected to be on the docket at an October meeting of bishops on issues related to the family held at the Vatican.
Late last year, the Vatican took the extraordinary step of asking bishops around the world to consult lay Catholics on these issues. A number of bishops have reported that their consultations gave voice to Catholics who question the church's teaching on homosexuality, contraception, and divorce.
Just yesterday, Germany's Bishop Stephan Ackermann said "The Christian concept of the human being emanates from the polarity of the sexes, but we cannot simply say homosexuality is unnatural," according to the National Catholic Reporter. He said the church should "hold fast" to the idea that sacramental marriage is between one man and one woman, but said the church could not ignore same-sex couples in civil partnerships.