ROME -- Pope Francis became the first pontiff to endorse same-sex civil unions in comments for a documentary that premiered Wednesday, sparking cheers from gay Catholics and demands for clarification from conservatives, given the Vatican's official teaching on the issue.
The papal thumbs-up came midway through the feature-length documentary "Francesco," which premiered at the Rome Film Festival. The film, which features fresh interviews with the pope, delves into issues Francis cares about most, including the environment, poverty, migration, racial and income inequality, and the people most affected by discrimination.
"Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God," Francis said. "You can't kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered."
While serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis endorsed civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriages. However, he had never come out publicly in favor of civil unions as pope, and no pontiff before him had, either.
Later on Wednesday, questions arose about when Francis first made the remarks. The scene of his interview is identical to one from 2019 with Mexican broadcaster Televisa, but his comments about the need for legal protections for civil unions apparently never aired until the documentary.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit who has sought to build bridges with gay Catholics, praised the comments as "a major step forward in the church's support for LGBT people."
"The pope's speaking positively about civil unions also sends a strong message to places where the church has opposed such laws," Martin said in a statement.
However, conservative Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., called for clarification. "The pope's statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the church about same-sex unions," he said in a statement. "The church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships."
Catholic teaching holds that gay people must be treated with dignity and respect but that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered." A 2003 document from the Vatican's doctrine office stated the church's respect for gay people "cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions."
Doing so, the Vatican reasoned, would not only condone "deviant behavior," but create an equivalence to marriage, which the church holds is an indissoluble union between man and woman.
That document was signed by the then-prefect of the office, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI and Francis' predecessor.
Director Evgeny Afineevsky, who is gay, expressed surprise after the premiere that the pope's comments had created such a firestorm, saying Francis wasn't trying to change doctrine but was merely expressing his belief that gay people should enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals.
One main character in the documentary is Juan Carlos Cruz, the Chilean survivor of clergy sexual abuse whom Francis initially discredited during a 2018 visit to Chile.
Cruz, who is gay, said that during his first meetings with the pope in May 2018 after they patched things up, Francis assured him that God made Cruz gay. Cruz tells his own story throughout the film, chronicling both Francis' apparent evolution on understanding sexual abuse as well as to document the pope's views on gay people.
Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was fervently opposed to gay marriage when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. Then, he started what gay activists remember as a "war of God" against Argentina's move to approve same-sex marriage.
The pope's authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, said at the time of his 2013 election that Bergoglio was politically wise enough to know the church couldn't win a fight against gay marriage. Instead, Rubin said, Bergoglio urged his fellow bishops to lobby for gay civil unions.
It wasn't until Bergoglio's proposal was shot down by the conservative bishops' conference that he publicly declared his opposition, and the church lost the issue altogether.
In the documentary, Francis essentially confirms Rubin's account of what transpired. Of his belief in the need for legislation to protect gay couples in civil relationships, he said: "I stood up for that."
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an organization of gay and transgender Catholics, praised Francis' comments as a "historic" shift for a church that has a record of persecuting gays.
"At the same time, 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," he said in a statement.
More conservative commentators sought to play down Francis' words and said that while secular civil unions are one thing, a church blessing of them is quite another.