Pope Francis, in Shift for Church, Voices Support for Same-Sex Civil Unions

Pope Francis expressed support for same-sex civil unions in remarks made in a documentary that premiered on Wednesday, a significant break from his predecessors that staked out new ground for the church in its recognition of gay people.

The remarks, coming from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, had the potential to shift debates about the legal status of same-sex couples in nations around the globe and unsettle bishops worried that the unions threaten traditional marriage.

“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered,” Francis said, reiterating his view that gay people are children of God. “I stood up for that.”

Many gay Catholics and their allies outside the church vigorously welcomed the pope’s remarks, even as they said they understood Francis’s opposition to gay marriage within the church remained absolute.

His conservative critics within the hierarchy, and especially in the conservative wing of the church in the United States, who have for years accused him of diluting church doctrine , saw the remarks as a contradiction of church teaching.

It was not immediately clear when Francis made those remarks, but Evgeny Afineevsky, the director of the documentary, ‘‘Francesco,’’ said that Francis made the remarks directly to him for the film.

Church teaching considers homosexual acts “intrinsically disordered” and the church is opposed to gay marriage.

In 2003, under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by the future Pope Benedict XVI, issued “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons,” in which it wrote, “The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”

Matteo Bruni, a spokesman for the Vatican, declined to comment until he had seen the movies and the pope’s remarks.

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