The UN’s Catholic secretary-general has praised the Pope’s historic comments in support of same-sex civil unions after the pontiff said gay people were ‘children of God and have a right to a family’.
UN chief Antonio Guterres, a devout worshipper from Catholic Portugal, said the papal thumbs-up was ‘extremely welcome’ after Francis’s words sparked cheers from gay Catholics and outrage from conservatives.
‘This is a clear demonstration of a fundamental principle, which is the principle of nondiscrimination,’ said Guterres in New York. ‘And one of the things that has been very clear in the UN doctrine on this is that non-discrimination is also relevant in the questions of sexual orientation.
‘So this is decision of the pope is, of course, extremely welcome from our perspective.’
Francis’s comments emerged in a new documentary in which he said that ‘what we have to create is a civil union law’, a position at odds with previous Vatican dogma.
While Francis, 83, opposes gay marriage, his words were hailed by admirers as a ‘major step forward in the church’s support for LGBT people’.
However, there was also a chorus of anger from conservative Catholics who said it ‘clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the church’.
Catholic teaching holds that gay people should be treated with respect but that homosexual acts are ‘intrinsically disordered’.
A 2003 document from the Vatican’s doctrine office – bearing the stamp of Francis’s two immediate predecessors – said legal approval would mean the ‘approval of deviant behaviour’.
‘The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions,’ it said.
‘The common good requires that laws recognise, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society.’
It also argued that Catholic lawmakers had a ‘moral duty’ to vote against the legal recognition of same-sex unions.
The document was approved by Pope John Paul II and signed by Francis’s predecessor, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
Francis supported civil unions when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, but his words carry a far greater weight as head of the Catholic Church.
He made his comments in a new documentary, Francesco, by Oscar-nominated director Evgeny Afineevsky.
‘Homosexual people have a right to be in a family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it,’ he said.
‘What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that,’ he said.
The Rev James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest who has advocated for greater LGBTQ inclusion in the church, called the remarks momentous.
‘First, he is saying them as Pope, not Archbishop of Buenos Aires,’ Martin said. ‘Second, he is clearly supporting, not simply tolerating, civil unions. Third, he is saying it on camera, not privately. Historic.’
Martin added that Francis’s words were ‘a major step forward in the church’s support for LGBT people’.
‘Pope Francis’ clear and public support for same-sex civil unions marks a new stage in the church’s relationship with LGBTQ people,’ he said.
Francis has frequently said that gay people should be accepted in their parishes and urged parents not to reject their children.
On his first foreign trip as pope, to Brazil in 2013, he said of gay people trying to live a Christian life: ‘Who am I to judge?’.
Since then, he has ministered to gay people and transgender prostitutes, and welcomed people in same-sex partnerships into his inner circle.
In 2014, the Vatican denied reports that Francis had endorsed civil unions, and he took a more conservative tone in a book called On Heaven And Earth.
‘Every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity,’ he said in criticism of adoption by gay couples.
He added that laws which equated same-sex relationships to marriages would be ‘an anthropological regression’.
Francis has always voiced opposition to gay marriage, saying that marriage should only be between a man and woman.
‘Marriage is a historic word,’ he told French sociologist Dominique Wolton in a 2017 book of interviews.
‘Always among human beings, and not only in the Church, it has been between a man and a woman. You can’t just change that like that.’
Conservatives demanded a clarification from Francis on Wednesday, saying the Pope had thrown official church doctrine out of the window.
‘The Pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the Church about same-sex unions,’ said Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island.
The Church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships,’ he said in a statement.
Ed Mechmann, director of public policy of the Archdiocese of New York, said that ‘supporting the legal recognition of any kind of same-sex union is contrary to Church teaching.’
The Rev Donald Paul Sullins, a professor at the Catholic University of America, said Francis’s words ‘directly contradict the Catholic Church’s most recent teaching on this matter’.
Civil unions have been a precursor to fully-fledged marriage in many countries, including in Britain and the United States.
Several US states brought in civil unions in the years before gay marriage was declared legal nationwide by the Supreme Court in 2015.
The UK brought in civil partnerships in 2005 before same-sex marriage was legalised in 2014.
In the documentary, gay worshipper and sexual abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz said Francis had assured him that God made him gay.
‘Juan, it is God who made you gay and he loves you anyway. God loves you and the Pope loves you too,’ Francis apparently told Cruz.
The Pope had initially discredited Cruz’s abuse allegations during a visit to Chile in 2018, but they later reconciled.
Polls indicate that many lay Catholics are more accepting of LGTBQ rights despite official teachings.
About six in 10 US Catholics supported government protections that would bar discrimination against LGBTQ people in workplaces, housing and schools, according to a December poll.