Pope Francis has thrown his support behind same-sex civil unions for the first time as pontiff in a surprise declaration that could prove “revolutionary” for the Catholic Church.
His endorsement of gay unions, which will be sharply divisive within the Church, was made in a feature-length documentary about his papacy, Francesco, which was shown for the first time at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday.
"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," the Pope said in the film.
"What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that," he said.
The comments were welcomed by Catholic liberals but greeted with anger and dismay by conservatives.
They are already deeply opposed to the Pope’s progressive views on issues like giving Communion to remarried divorcees, his support for migrants and his criticism of capitalism.
The remarks come seven years after Francis famously asked “Who am I to judge?” about homosexuals, both in the Church and in society at large.
While the Pope’s endorsement of same-sex unions will make little practical difference in countries where they are already permitted, it will have huge ramifications for Catholic countries in the developing world.
“In Africa, Asia and Latin America, he is way ahead of the curve in talking about civil unions. In some countries in Africa, it is still a crime to engage in homosexual activities. In Latin America, there are people who will say gays do not exist. So to talk about civil unions is revolutionary,” Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and author of Inside the Vatican, told The Telegraph.
The Pope’s remarks could be used to portray the Catholic Church as dangerously liberal by other religions in those regions.
“There are Muslim imams and very conservative evangelical groups who are competing for congregations. They will be able to play this card against the Catholic Church,” said Father Reese, a senior analyst for Religion News Service, a Catholic agency.
“In the US, I’m sure there will be people on the conservative Right who will say this is terrible, as they do with much of what Francis does.”
Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest who has spearheaded efforts to build bridges with gays in the Church, said the remarks were "a major step forward in the Church's support for LGBT people."
Francis – formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he was elected to the papacy – opposed gay marriage but endorsed legal protection for the rights of gay couples when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires in his native Argentina. But this is the first time he has spoken so clearly on the subject as Pope.
His remarks will incense many conservative Catholics, some of whom wish Benedict XVI had never resigned from the papacy in 2013.
“This will be the last straw for a number of Catholics who have become increasingly incensed at the Pope’s words which can be read in a variety of ways, often contrary to the faith,” said Edward Pentin, an expert on the Holy See and the author of The Next Pope, about which cardinal is likely to be elected Francis’s successor.
“These Catholics, who tend to be church-goers and take their faith seriously, are outraged by these comments and incredulous that a Pope would say this as they say it directly undermines Church teaching.”
Francis’s support for gay unions would “probably serve to embolden a growing number of Catholics who believe Benedict XVI is still Pope and that Francis is an impostor, or even an anti-pope,” said Mr Pentin, Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register.
The Catholic Church’s official position is that while being homosexual is not a sin, engaging in homosexual sex is.
The documentary was made by Evgeny Afineevsky, a Russian director based in Los Angeles who gained access not only to the Pope but to cardinals and the Vatican television archives.
A Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) spokesman said: "We'd argue there shouldnt be discrimination on the basis of sexuality and civil unions offer a legislative equivalent. However we understand marriage to be a distinct union between a man and a woman."
The UK has already passed legislation which enshrines the rights for gay couples to marry, and to have a civil partnership.
However, the CBCEW has interpreted the Pope's comments in the documentary as referring to the issue of civil unions more generally in a global context.
In the UK, the spokesman explained, "these arguments have already come and gone. I think Pope Francis is signalling that there shouldn't be discrimination - and that's what civil partnerships do offer."