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Pope Francis Backs Civil Unions for Gay Couples, in Shift for Vatican

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Pope Francis Backs Civil Unions for Gay Couples, in Shift for Vatican

ROME—Pope Francis endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples, in a move that is likely to intensify the already heated controversy over the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality.

The pope’s words, though not part of his official teaching, will likely put pressure on Catholic bishops in the developing world to tolerate legal recognition of same-sex unions and oppose anti-homosexuality laws.

In Europe, North America and other Western countries, too, it is expected to have an impact on the cultural wars over sexuality within the church and beyond.

“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,” Pope Francis said in a new documentary film, “Francesco,” which premiered at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday, according to the Catholic News Agency and other outlets.

“What we have to create is a civil-union law. That way they are legally covered,” the pope said, according to CNA. “I stood up for that.”

At least some of the remarks were apparently drawn from a 2019 television interview with Mexico’s

Grupo Televisa.

Since his remarks weren’t delivered in a sermon or a Vatican document, they don’t constitute official papal teaching.

Pope Francis has been notable for his conciliatory approach to gay people. The most famous words of his pontificate are his 2013 statement about gay priests: “Who am I to judge?” He also has received a transgender man at the Vatican and met with a same-sex couple in Washington, D.C.

At the same time, the pope has rejected the possibility of same-sex marriage. In a 2016 document, he wrote that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

Earlier, when the pope was archbishop of Buenos Aires as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he described same-sex marriage as an “anthropological regression.”

But in a 2014 interview, about a year after his election as pope, he suggested that the Catholic Church could tolerate some form of civil unions for same-sex couples.

“Matrimony is between a man and a woman,” the pope said, but moves to “regulate diverse situations of cohabitation [are] driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care.” Asked how the church should respond, he replied: “It is necessary to look at the diverse cases and evaluate them in their variety.”

During his time as archbishop, the future pope supported civil unions as an alternative to same-sex marriage, according to his biographer Austen Ivereigh. Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010.

But the pope’s statement in the movie, juxtaposed with an affirmation of the rights of gay people, sounds less like a compromise with pluralist, secular society than a defense of civil unions as a positive good.

The Vatican’s position on civil unions has until now been set forth in a 2003 document by the doctrinal office, then led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. According to that document, “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”

The Holy See Press Office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Pope Francis’s support for same-sex civil unions is a major step forward in the church’s support of LGBTQ people…and sends a strong signal to countries where the church has opposed such laws,” tweeted the Rev. James Martin, author of “Building a Bridge,” a book about the church’s relationship with gay Catholics, who was received in a private audience by the pope last year.

African Catholic bishops have emerged as a prominent conservative bloc on family issues within the church, strongly opposing the liberalization of doctrine on homosexuality. They also have protested what they say is pressure from rich countries and international organizations to repeal harsh anti-homosexuality laws in some African countries.

Pope Francis’ statement could lend support to gay activists in Poland, where the country’s Catholic bishops recently called for clinics to help LGBTQ people “regain their sexual health and natural sexual orientation.”

The Catholic Church teaches that “homosexual tendencies” aren’t sinful in themselves but are “objectively disordered” as an inclination to perform homosexual acts, which are sinful.

“It’s not a change in teaching but a change in approach,” said Father Martin in an interview. “It will be a lot harder for bishops to say that the Catholic Church believes that same-sex civil unions are a threat when you have the pope saying he supports them.”

The pope’s statement could also give encouragement to liberal bishops in northern Europe who support the practice of blessing same-sex couples.

Conservatives expressed dismay on Wednesday.

“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 longstanding teaching of the Church,” said Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., a vocal conservative, in a statement.

The Rev. Gerald Murray, pastor of Holy Family Church in New York and a frequent commentator on EWTN Catholic television, said he expected other bishops and cardinals would weigh in for or against the pope’s statement, exacerbating divisions in the church.

“Pope Francis has overstepped his bounds,” Father Murray said, noting that the pope’s statement that gay people “have a right to a family” could be read as an endorsement of adoption by gay couples, which the church has opposed.

“He is confusing yet again, not only people outside the church but people inside the church, about what church doctrine is,” said Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington and editor of the Catholic Thing website. “Now anyone can tell a bishop who is trying to put forward Catholic teaching that your own pope disagrees with you.”

Write to Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com

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