Pope Francis holds his speech during an International Prayer Meeting for Peace (Vatican Pool/Getty Images)
Pope Francis has given his backing to same-sex civil unions for the first time, in a major break from Catholic teachings.
The 83-year-old leader gave the nod to gay unions in an interview for the documentary Francesco, which premiered at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday (October 21).
The pontiff said: “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”
He added: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.”
The comments are a significant break from his own past comments as well as the position of the church, which has long deployed its lobbying influence to oppose any legal recognition of same-sex relationships.
As noted by the Catholic News Agency, in his 2013 book On Heaven and Earth Pope Francis condemned laws “assimilating” homosexual relationships to marriage as “an anthropological regression”.
He also warned that same-sex couples gaining the right to form unions and adopt could “affect children”, insisting: “Every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.”
Catholic opposition led to repeated defeats over a civil union law in Italy, before a watered-down version was finally approved in 2016 in the face of continued opposition from the church.
As the bill was discussed in 2014, high-ranking cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, claimed: “It is irresponsible to weaken the family by creating new forms of unions… it only confuses people and has the effect of being a sort of Trojan horse, undermining culturally and socially the core of humanity.”
In 2003, under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican warned: “Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity.”
While Pope Francis has a track record of public comments in support of LGBT+ people’s individual freedoms, critics say he has done little on paper to end the church’s discriminatory practises and lobbying in opposition to equal rights.
There are still countless cases of Catholic schools firing teachers for being gay, and Catholic adoption agencies have fought for the right to exclude same-sex parents. Bishops have also led the defence of conversion therapy practises, which pro-LGBT+ voices in the church say is still commonplace in Catholicism.
Responding to his the remarks, the pro-LGBT+ Jesuit priest Rev. James Martin said they were a “a major step forward in the church’s support for LGBT people.”
He said: “The Pope’s speaking positively about civil unions also sends a strong message to places where the church has opposed such laws.”
Director Evgeny Afineevsky received considerable access for the film Francesco, part of which addresses the leader’s outreach to LGBT+ people.
The film recounts the story of two gay Italian men who say the leader encouraged them to raise their children with the Pope.
“He didn’t mention what was his opinion on my family. Probably he’s following the doctrine on this point,” one of the men said.
Pope Francis has had a chequered history with the LGBT+ community.
In 2013, he made global headlines when he called on the Catholic church to “show mercy, not condemnation” to gay people – representing a stark shift in tone from his predecessors.
But in 2019, he told a Spanish newspaper that parents who see signs of homosexuality in their children should “consult a professional” – a comment that was considered by many to endorse conversion therapy.
Meanwhile, he has been staunch in his opposition to trans identities, comparing them to nuclear war and genetic manipulation in 2015.
In 2019, the Vatican released a document claiming that “gender ideology” is a “move away from nature”.