Pope Francis calls for civil union laws for same-sex couples

Pope Francis greets people as he leaves after the weekly general audience, at the Vatican, on Oct. 21.

By Chico Harlan and Michelle Boorstein

Pope Francis, in a new documentary, has called for the creation of civil union laws for same-sex couples, in what amounts to his clearest support to date for the issue.

In the documentary, according to the Catholic News Agency, Francis is quoted as saying that same-sex couples should be “legally covered.”

“What we have to create is a civil union law,” he said.

Francis has long expressed an interest in outreach to the church’s LGBT followers, but his remarks have often stressed general understanding and welcoming — rather than substantive policies.

Priests in some parts of the world bless same-sex marriage, but that stance — and Francis’s new remarks — are a departure from official church teaching.

The documentary, “Francesco,” is premiering this week in Rome and then in the United States. The pope gave an interview to the filmmaker, Evgeny Afineevsky, saying that “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 said. “Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”

Francis, who became pope in 2013, gave earlier, oblique signals interpreted as openness to recognizing same-gender civil unions. He has usually framed his comments in pragmatic, curious terms — as someone noticing the possible need for legal recognition for existing families, so they can access civil benefits such as heath care.

“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 on 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.”

According to a Religion News Service story from 2014, Francis — while still a cardinal in Argentina — tried to “negotiate with the Argentine government over the legalization of gay marriage and signaled he would be open to civil unions as an alternative.”

Francis made news that year when the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published an interview with him reiterating “the church’s teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman while acknowledging that governments want to adopt civil unions for gay couples and others to allow for economic and other benefits,” RNS reported.

In the interview, Francis said the churches in various countries must account for those reasons when formulating public policy positions. “We must consider different cases and evaluate each particular case,” Corriere della Serra quoted him as saying.

The interview triggered global interest and controversy. Some said Francis had outright endorsed civil unions.

The Vatican quickly clarified that Francis was speaking in general terms and that people “should not try to read more into the pope’s words than what has been stated,” RNS reported in 2014.

Italy was the last country in Western Europe — other than Vatican City — to offer same-sex couples legal rights, The Washington Post reported in 2016, a position based on the Roman Catholic Church’s historic opposition to such unions.

Francis has a reputation of offering words open to interpretation. In 2016, after the Vatican hosted a combative synod on the family, he said “there cannot be any confusion between the family willed by God and other kinds of unions,” The Post’s 2016 story said.

This has angered traditional Christians. In 2015, New York Archbishop Tim Dolan was asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” if accepting civil unions would make him “uncomfortable,” Dolan said it would, because it could “water down” the traditional religious view of marriage,” the RNS story reported.

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