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Pope Francis Signals 'Historic' Shift for Catholic Church, Publicly Supporting Civil Unions for Same-Sex Couples

The pope won praise for "pushing the Church into the 21st Century."

Pope Francis speaking to the European Parliament in 2014. (Photo: EU/flickr/cc)

Catholic leaders and observers of the Vatican witnessed "a major step forward" for the Catholic Church Wednesday after Pope Francis indicated his support for civil unions for same-sex couples, breaking with the church's long-held official teachings. 

In the documentary "Francesco," which premiered at the Rome Film Festival Wednesday, the pope called for a "civil union law" to ensure gay and lesbian couples have the same legal rights as married straight couples. 

"Homosexual people have a right to be in a family," he said in the film. "They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or made miserable over it."

Couples should be "legally covered" under a law allowing civil unions, Francis said, adding, "I stood up for that."

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the pope supported legal protections for gay couples while opposing same-sex marriage.

While Francis did not indicate that the church would change its thinking on marriages any time soon, his statement in the film—and a scene in which he encouraged a gay couple to attend the Catholic Church with their children—was a far cry from guidance released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2003.

Regarding "Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons," the church—then led by Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI—wrote, "The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions."

Jesuit priest James Martin tweeted that the pope's appearance in the film "is a major step forward in the church's support for LGBTQ people," which could have positive effects on the treatment of LGBTQIA people around the world. 

U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who is Catholic, applauded the pope's remarks. 

Since being elected to replace Benedict in 2013, Pope Francis has been outspoken about a number of social issues and progressive causes, indicating his desire to lead a church which defends the rights of all people and which speaks out against numerous forms of injustice.

Earlier this month, the pope condemned "the destructive effects of the empire of money" and skyrocketing inequality during the coronavirus pandemic, and he has spoken several times in recent years about the need to end fossil fuel extraction in order to save the planet.  

The pope also called on the church to keep "open doors" for divorced people who remarry; held a private meeting with a Diego Neria Lejarraga, a transgender man, and reportedly embraced Lejarraga when he asked whether there was a place for him in the church; and said shortly after he was named head of the Catholic Church that he would welcome gay Catholics—in contrast with his predecessor, who referred to homosexuality as an "intrinsic moral evil."

"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" said Francis in July 2013.  

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