Pope Francis expressed support for same-sex civil unions in remarks revealed in a documentary film 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 what the church considers traditional marriage — between one man and one woman.
“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered,” Francis said in the documentary, “Francesco,” which debuted at the Rome Film Festival, reiterating his view that gay people are children of God. “I stood up for that.”
Many gay Catholics and their allies outside the church welcomed the pope’s remarks, though Francis’ opposition to gay marriage within the church remained absolute.
His conservative critics within the church 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 reversal of church teaching.
“The pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the longstanding teaching of the church about same-sex unions,” said Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., adding that the remarks needed to be clarified.
There was little doubt that Francis, recorded on camera, made the statements during his pontificate. But there was confusion on Wednesday about when he had said them and to whom. The Vatican dismissed them as old news.
Francis has a tendency for making off-the-cuff public remarks, a trait that maddens both supporters and critics alike. The comments shown in the film are likely to generate exactly the sort of discussion the pope has repeatedly sought to foster on issues once considered forbidden in the church’s culture wars.
Francis had already drastically shifted the tone of the church on questions related to homosexuality, but he has done little on policy and not changed teaching for a church that sees its future growth in the Southern Hemisphere, where the clerical hierarchy is generally less tolerant of homosexuality.
The remark “in no way affects doctrine,” the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis, told the television channel of the Italian bishops conference on Wednesday evening.
The remarks in the documentary were in keeping with Francis’ general support for gay people, but were perhaps his most specific and prominent on the issue of civil unions, which even traditionally Catholic nations like Italy, Ireland and Argentina have permitted in recent years.
The director of the documentary, Evgeny Afineevsky, told The New York Times that Francis had made the remarks directly to him for the film. He did not reply to a question about when the remarks were made by the pope.
The Vatican and allies of Francis publicly cast doubt on the notion that the pope said the remarks to Mr. Afineevsky, asserting that the pontiff instead had made them to a Mexican journalist, Valentina Alazraki, in an interview in the Vatican in May 2019. Earlier on Wednesday, Ms. Alazraki had told The Times that she did not recall the pope making the comments to her.
In 2010, as Argentina was on the verge of approving gay marriage, Francis, then cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, supported the idea of civil unions for gay couples.