Pope Francis has endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples.
It's a major move for the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, which considers same-sex relationships sinful. It's not an endorsement of church marriage, nor civil marriage equality, but it's a huge step forward.
Francis made the remark in a new documentary, Francesco, which premiered in Rome Wednesday, The New York Times reports.
"What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered," the pope said in the film.
"They're children of God and have a right to a family," he continued. "Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it."
The timing of the remarks isn't clear, but filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky told the Times Francis made the comments directly to him for the documentary. Francis had endorsed civil unions when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, but this is the first such statement he's made as pope.
Italy actually already has civil unions, and most countries in Western Europe have marriage equality. So the pope is behind the curve when it comes to law, but his remarks still represent a major move within the church, although it's unclear if they will have any effect on church doctrine. The Vatican so far is declining comment.
Ever since he became pope in 2013, Francis has taken a more conciliatory tone toward LGBTQ+ people than his predecessors, beginning with his famous "Who am I to judge?" comment about gay priests. He has met with gay and transgender people, who have spoken warmly about their interactions with him.
But personal relationships are one thing, and church doctrine something else. The pope has consistently reiterated the church's stance that sexual relations are reserved for married heterosexual couples and that gender is God-given, fixed at birth, and immutable.
Advocates for LGBTQ+ equality generally welcomed the civil unions endorsement. "This is the first time as pope he's making such a clear statement," the Rev. James Martin, a priest who has urged the church to become more welcoming to LGBTQ+ people, 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."
Martin also tweeted that the pope's comment "sends a strong signal to countries where the church has opposed such laws."
"Today, Pope Francis took a significant step for inclusion and acceptance in the Catholic Church by embracing unions for same-sex couples and affirming that LGBTQ Catholics are a part of their religious family," Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a press release. "By shifting Catholic theology in a more inclusive direction and making clear that LGBTQ people have a right to their own families, Pope Francis is letting LGBTQ Catholics know that being a person of faith and being LGBTQ are not mutually exclusive. While we at the Human Rights Campaign acknowledge this moment, we continue to push the Catholic Church, and all religious leaders, to fully embrace LGBTQ people and endorse marriage equality for same-sex couples, our right to have families, and to be full members of our faith communities.
"Many members of the LGBTQ community have had difficulty engaging with places of worship because they have not been accepting of LGBTQ people. We are hopeful that this is another in a line of many actions toward full inclusion and acceptance for LGBTQ people in Catholicism, and in all faiths."
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of LGBTQ+ Catholic group DignityUSA, expressed some reservations. "Is this a confession that the world and legal communities are moving forward and the church is eons behind?" she told the Post. "Is it a step forward, or is it a way to avoid going all the way toward same-sex sacramental marriage? Because we've experienced a push-pull from the church on this, we'll hold our breath."
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