IN MANY parts of the world, includingly predominantly Catholic countries, people who fall in love with people of the same sex continue to suffer persecution, isolation, condemnation and even violence. For that reason alone, Pope Francis’s comments on same-sex civil unions mark a welcome watershed. If they lead to real change in church policy, all the better.

Historically, the church has not been accepting of the LGBTQ community. A 2003 Vatican statement said, “Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, 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.” It is therefore significant that a pope for the first time has come out in favor of legal protections for same-sex relationships.

In a new documentary, “Francesco,” that premiered in Rome this week, Pope Francis, according to the Catholic News Agency, departed from his predecessors and official church teaching when he called for creation of civil-union laws for same-sex couples. “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,” the pope said in the film. “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”

The Vatican press office had no immediate comment, and it’s unclear whether the pontiff’s words will lead to a change in the church’s doctrinal policy and teachings that hold that homosexual acts are “disordered.” Pope Francis previously has sought to soften the tone of discussion about homosexuality, but has done little to change policy. Even so, his remarks — most famously his 2013 retort, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay people — have caused conservative critics within the church to accuse him of a betrayal of core Catholic principles.

The pope has made clear that he believes marriage must be between a man and a woman. Civil unions would not accord the same equality as marriage, which is why many nations, including the United States, have deemed them unsatisfactory. Still, Pope Francis’s comments in support of civil unions could prove to be an important stepping stone in according gay people the rights and respect owed to all people.

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear a case about whether a Catholic social services agency is entitled to continue receiving public funds if it refuses to place children in foster care with same-sex couples. Is the church’s position in that case consistent with the pope’s humane assessment that all people are entitled to enjoy the blessings of family life?

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