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Pope Francis arrives at the Paul VI Hall for the weekly general audience at the Vatican, Oct. 21, 2020.

GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE/Reuters

Pope Francis has endorsed same-sex civil unions, a milestone for the Catholic Church that builds on his position of tolerance for homosexuality, which has become a hallmark of his years at the Vatican.

The message emerged Wednesday with the release of the documentary Francesco, in which the Pope passionately expresses support for same-sex civil unions, setting him apart from his conservative predecessors and much of the Catholic establishment.

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family,” he said in the film. “They are children of God. You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil-union law. That way they are legally covered.”

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The documentary, directed by Evgeny Afineevsky, made its premiere at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday. Francis allowed Mr. Afineevsky, who is gay, to travel the world with him and gave the director exclusive interviews.

Francis’s endorsement of same-sex civil unions represents a departure from church doctrine even if he has always rejected the idea of same-sex marriage – religious marriage done in a church, which sometimes carries different legal status, depending on the jurisdiction. His comments riled the deeply conservative factions in the Catholic Church and delighted the liberal factions.

James Martin, a Jesuit priest who been lobbying the Vatican to forge welcoming relations with gay, lesbians and transgender people, welcomed Francis’s support for same-sex civil unions. In a statement carried by the Associated Press, Rev. Martin called the Pope’s comments “a major step forward in the church’s support for LGBT people” and said they send “a strong message to places where the church has opposed such laws.”

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, an ultraconservative Italian critic of the Pope who has accused Francis of pandering to gay groups, was upset by the Pope’s message. In an opinion piece published Wednesday on the Church Militant website, which is popular among traditional Catholics, he said: “One does not have to be a theologian or a moral expert to know that such statements are totally heterodox and constitute a very serious cause of scandal for the faithful.”

Francis took a friendly and pacifying approach to gay people from the start of his papacy. In 2013, he made headlines around the world when he said, in reference to gay priests, “Who am I to judge?”

There is some debate whether he supported same-sex civil unions when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, a position the Argentine priest – born Jorge Mario Bergoglio – was awarded in 1998 (he became a Cardinal in 2001).

Some reports say that Francis did support civil unions when he was archbishop. One of those came from Sergio Rubin, who would become the Pope’s biographer. But other reports dismissed that claim as false, including one in 2013 from Miguel Woites, the influential director of AICA, the Catholic news agency in Argentina.

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What is certain is that Francis has always rejected same-sex marriage, as did his two immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II. In 2003, when Benedict was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, a document of the Vatican’s doctrine office, of which the Cardinal was prefect, said that the church’s respect for gays “cannot lead in any way to approve of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”

As recently as 2016, Francis 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.” Three years earlier, he described gay marriage as an “anthropological regression” and expressed concerns about giving same-sex couples the rights to adopt for fear of confusing the identity of the children.

Still, Francis has never specifically rejected the notion of same-sex civil unions. Since becoming Pope seven years ago, he has welcomed and befriended gay couples, setting the tone for a liberal and tolerant papacy in contrast with previous popes.

In 2015, for instance, Francis invited one of his former students, Yayo Grassi, and his gay partner to visit him at the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Washington when he was on an American tour. The presence of the gay couple did not sit well with Archbishop Vigano, who was then Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S.; the Archbishop invited anti-gay-marriage activist Kim Davis to the same event. Ms. Davis became briefly famous in 2015 when, as a county clerk in Kentucky, she defied a U.S. federal court order to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples.

Mr. Afineevsky, the Francesco director, is a Soviet-born Jew who now lives in Los Angeles. He was nominated for an Oscar for his 2015 documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. He told Reuters that he wanted to make the documentary about Francis after the dark experience of producing his film about the civil war in Syria, Cries from Syria, in 2016.

“I wanted to find hope, light and love and give this hope to people,” Mr. Afineevsky said. “Through [the Pope’s] actions, I found this.”

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