Francis’s comment does nothing to alter Catholic doctrine, but it nonetheless represents a remarkable shift for a church that has fought against LGBT legal rights — with past popes calling same-sex unions inadmissible and deviant.
Francis’s statement is also notable within a papacy that on the whole hasn’t been as revolutionary as progressives had hoped and conservatives had feared.
He has long expressed an interest in outreach to the church’s LGBT followers, but his previous remarks as pope have stressed understanding and welcoming rather than substantive policies.
“This is the first time as pope he’s making such a clear statement,” the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit who has advocated for the church to more openly welcome LGBT members, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I think it’s a big step forward. In the past, even civil unions were frowned upon in many quarters of the church. He is putting his weight behind legal recognition of same-sex civil unions.”
The remarks from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church have the potential to shift the debate for some of its 1.3 billion followers. While Catholic priests in some parts of the world already bless same-sex marriage, others clerics operate in countries where homosexuality is illegal.
In “Francesco,” a documentary that touches on several of the pope’s trademark issues, from migration to the environment, Francis does not indicate any openness to extending marriage to same-sex couples, but says “homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family.”
“They’re children of God and have a right to a family,” the pope says in his interview with the filmmaker, Evgeny Afineevsky. “Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”
“This is huge,” said David Gibson, director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture. “Looking behind all this, [Francis is] basically saying, again, ‘We’re not out here to be culture warriors. We’re not out here to pick fights. We are out here to build up the family.’ ”
Officially, the church teaches that homosexual sex acts are “disordered.” Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, called homosexuality an “intrinsic moral evil.” In 2003, under John Paul II, the church issued a lengthy document laying out the “problem of homosexual unions.” The document, issued by the Vatican’s doctrinal office, said that “legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage” would amount to “the approval of deviant behavior.”
Roberto de Mattei, president of the conservative Lepanto Foundation in Rome, said Wednesday that “this is perhaps the first time Pope Francis has publicly taken a stance on a specific point of morality against the church’s doctrine.”
“There’s no doubt this will add to the great confusion already existing in the Catholic world,” de Mattei said, “and will be fodder for those who maintain that, at least privately, the pope promotes or supports heresy.”
Conservatives often accuse Francis of muddling the church’s teaching on sexuality, saying he is allowing cultural changes to influence what should be immutable rules.
Famously, Francis in 2013 said about somebody who is gay: “Who am I to judge?” And he has spoken often about his ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics, saying they are loved by God and welcomed by the church.
His previous commentary about civil unions as pope has been difficult to decipher. In 2014, he said such unions should be evaluated “in their variety.” Though some took his words as an endorsement, the Vatican’s press office at the time downplayed the significance of any message.
Earlier, as a cardinal in Argentina, the pope reportedly supported civil unions as a pragmatic alternative to same-sex marriage. By all accounts, he remains staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage.
Reaction in the United States among bishops who have been previously critical of Francis’s papacy was relatively muted Wednesday. Support for civil unions and same-sex marriage among U.S. Catholics has steadily risen over the years: According to a Pew Research Center study from 2019, about 61 percent of Catholics support same-sex marriage, compared with 42 percent a decade earlier.
Thomas Tobin, the bishop of Providence, R.I., said in a statement that “the Holy Father’s apparent support for the recognition of civil unions for same-sex couples needs to be clarified.”
“The Pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the Church about same-sex unions,” Tobin said. “The Church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships. Individuals with same-sex attraction are beloved children of God and must have their personal human rights and civil rights recognized and protected by law. However, the legalization of their civil unions, which seek to simulate holy matrimony, is not admissible.”
For many LGBT members of the faith, Francis may not have gone far enough.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a national organization of Catholics dedicated to LGBT rights, was skeptical on Wednesday.
“Is this a confession that the world and legal communities are moving forward and the church is eons behind?” Duddy-Burke said. “Is it a step forward, or is it a way to avoid going all the way toward same-sex sacramental marriage? Because we’ve experienced a push-pull from the church on this, we’ll hold our breath.”
The pope’s statement may be seen by some as the next step toward marriage equality, but the Catholic Church is far from taking that step, said Patrick Hornbeck, professor of theology at Fordham University.
Hornbeck, who left the Catholic Church for the Episcopal Church before he married his same-sex partner in 2015, said Catholics who stay in the church have to do so with open eyes, because it is not likely to change for decades.
“As long as the Catholic Church continues to treat the lives and loves of LGBT people as short of the divine plan for humanity, people who are LGBT will always have second-class status,” Hornbeck said.
Boorstein reported from Washington, and Pulliam Bailey from New York. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.