Pope Francis advocated civil unions for same-sex couples for the first time as pope during an interview in a documentary that premiered Wednesday at the Rome Film Festival.
"Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God," Francis said in the biopic "Francesco."
"What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered."
Francis endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples as an alternative to same-sex marriage while he was an archbishop in his home country of Argentina. But it's the first time in his papacy he has publicly made the endorsement, the Associated Press reported.
The Rev. James Martin, known for his outreach to gay Catholics, praised the pope's comments as "a major step forward in the church’s support for LGBT people," the AP reported.
"The Pope's speaking positively about civil unions also sends a strong message to places where the church has opposed such laws," said Martin, the editor of the Jesuit magazine America, in a statement.
In the documentary, Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of clergy sexual abuse, recalled that when Francis first met him in 2018, the pope assured him that God made him gay.
In the early months of his papacy in 2013, Francis struck a new tone on issues such as homosexuality, abortion and the role of women.
In an interview in which he declared, "I have never been a right-winger," he mades it clear that the Roman Catholic Church needed to change the way it communicates with the world.
"The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules," Francis said in an interview for 16 Jesuit publications around the world, including America magazine. "Ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."
The National Catholic Reporter's John Allen weighed in at the time as establishment media seized on the pope's comments on social issues with headlines such as CNN's "Pope Francis: Church can't 'interfere' with gays."
Allen insisted "the pope was not breaking with traditional doctrine but trying to shift the church's emphasis from condemnation to mercy."
Some U.S. bishops, however, publicly lamented that Francis, the first Jesuit to become pope, had not made strong pronouncements about abortion and homosexuality.
In the 2013 interview, Francis said that when someone once asked him if he "approves" of homosexuality, he answered with another question: "Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?"
Allen contended at the time that when Francis says this, "he's doing no more than rephrasing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which denounces homosexual acts but says homosexual persons are to be treated with "respect, compassion and sensitivity."
In July 2013 during a return flight from Brazil, Francis told reporters that if "someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
USA Today declared in a headline: "Pope Francis says he won't 'judge' gay priests"
But, as WND reported at the time, many Catholic commentators insisted Francis remarks were misunderstood or misreported.
"As usual," wrote National Catholic Register blogger Jimmy Akin, "the press is painting a false picture by contrasting the 'good' Francis and the 'bad' Benedict."
Akin insisted that taking his statements together, "what emerges is a portrait of individuals who have same-sex attraction but who nevertheless accept the Lord and have goodwill, as opposed to working to advance a pro-homosexual ideology."