Initially, the origin of the pope’s comment appeared clear-cut: Filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky told several news outlets that he had conducted the interview in which the pope advocated for “a civil union law.”
But Internet sleuths and journalists then realized the comments instead appeared to come from a 2019 interview with a Mexican broadcaster.
The civil unions comment wasn’t part of the Televisa broadcast or a Vatican transcript released at the time. However, the scene shown in the documentary, “Francesco,” looks identical to the 2019 footage: same lighting, same chair in the background, same placement of the small microphone on the pope’s vestments.
The debate over the comment’s origins doesn’t change the significance of what the pope said, but it does introduce questions about the filmmaker’s methods.
It also raises questions about whether the Vatican had initially been uncomfortable with the remarks or asked the Mexican channel to cut them at the time. Francis is known for making news while speaking off the cuff, sometimes leaving his media handlers to do damage control.
In an email late Thursday, Televisa spokesman Ruben Acosta Montoya confirmed that the civil unions quote came from the 2019 interview, conducted by Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki. He said the comment had been removed by the Vatican, which owned and controlled the cameras. “Someone at the Vatican gave us the part that we did broadcast, and later they gave the rest of the material to someone else,” Acosta Montoya wrote.
He added: “Our correspondent (Valentina Alazraki) has told us that this was not the first time that the pope addressed the issue of the union between people of the same sex.”
The quote in the documentary, though, is the first clear statement of support from Francis that has become public during his papacy.
The Holy See press office did not respond to a request for comment, nor did other Vatican communications officials. As of Thursday evening, the Vatican’s news arm still had not reported on Francis’s comments.
One Vatican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, said any decision to omit certain parts of the 2019 interview would have come from the Vatican rather than the network. “I have a hard time understanding this situation,” the official said. “For sure, it is not a good service to the pope.”
The AP said the Vatican “frequently edits the pope in official transcripts and videos, especially when he speaks on sensitive issues.”
The Vatican transcript shows another comment in the documentary was pulled from the same 2019 session — with heavy editing.
“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family,” Francis is shown saying in the documentary. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”
In the transcript, those lines are not spoken consecutively, and it is clear the pope was referring to children, not couples, when saying, “They’re children of God and have a right to a family.”
Afineevsky, for his documentary, was granted access to Vatican video archives. Neither he nor his press team responded to requests for comment. On Wednesday, the Catholic News Agency, citing Afineevsky’s own account, had reported that Francis “made his call for civil unions during an interview [with] the documentarian.”
Francis’s endorsement made major waves for the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, including LGBTQ members who have felt shunned by the faith’s official teachings.
Human Rights Watch said the pontiff’s stance had the potential to bolster the LGBTQ legal fight, especially in predominantly Catholic countries such as Paraguay, Poland and the Philippines, where “same-sex couples lack basic recognition.”
The pope’s comment caused blowback from hardliners.
One cardinal frequently critical of Francis, Raymond Burke, on Thursday said that the pope’s remarks were contrary to the “Sacred Scripture” and would “generate great bewilderment and cause confusion” among the faithful.
Lang reported from Mexico City.