Pope Francis became the first pontiff to endorse same-sex civil unions, sparking cheers from gay Catholics and demands for clarification from conservatives given the Vatican’s official teaching on the issue.
The remarks came in a documentary called Francesco that was released on Wednesday.
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“Homosexual people have a right to be in a family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it,” the pontiff said, as he reflected on pastoral care for those who identify as LGBTQ.
“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that,” he said.
The documentary on the life and ministry of Pope Francis was presented at the Rome Film Festival, and is set to make its North American premiere on Sunday.
‘The existential peripheries’
The film chronicles the pope’s approach to pressing social issues, and in the words of the pontiff, those living “on the existential peripheries”.
The pope’s direct call for civil union laws represents a seismic shift from the perspective of his predecessors, and from his own more circumspect positions on civil unions in the past.
While serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2010, Francis endorsed civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriages. However, he had never come out publicly in favour of civil unions as pope, and no pontiff before him had either.
Reverand James Martin, a Jesuit who has sought to build bridges with gays in the church, 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, Rhode Island, 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 gays 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 gays “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 behaviour” but create an equivalence to marriage, which the church holds is an indissoluble union between man and woman.
‘World needs positivity’
Film director Evgeny Afineevsky, who is gay, expressed surprise after the premiere that the pope’s comments had created such a firestorm, saying Francis was not trying to change doctrine but was merely expressing his belief that gays should enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals.
“The world needs positivity right now, the world needs to care about climate change, care about refugees and migration, borders, walls, family separation,” Afineevsky said, urging attention to the main issues covered by the film.
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 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’ evolution on understanding sexual abuse as well as to document the pope’s views on gay people.
Afineevsky had remarkable access to cardinals, the Vatican television archives and the pope himself. He said he negotiated his way in through persistence, and deliveries of Argentine mate tea and Alfajores cookies that he got to the pope via well-connected Argentines in Rome.
“Listen, when you are in the Vatican, the only way to achieve something is to break the rule and then to say, ‘I’m sorry,’” Afineevsky said in an interview.