Pope Francis has called for the creation of civil union laws that would help same-sex couples create families as "children of God," challenging a previous conclusion by the Catholic Church that endorsing such unions would be an "approval of deviant behavior."
"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," Francis said in a documentary, called "Francesco," that premiered Wednesday in Rome, the Catholic News Agency reported.
"What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that," Francis, whose comments came as he reflected on pastoral care for those who identify as LGBT, added.
The documentary by Oscar-nominated Director Evgeny Afineevsky, which highlights the life and ministry of Pope Francis, is set to make its North American premiere on Sunday.
Francis has previously expressed support for same-sex civil unions. During his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he advocated for same-sex civil unions in a bid to block a same-sex marriage law. Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010.
In 2003, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and at the direction of Pope John Paul II made it clear that same-sex civil unions cannot be supported by the church.
"The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society," the document said.
"Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity. The Church cannot fail to defend these values, for the good of men and women and for the good of society itself," it concluded.
On Wednesday, the Human Rights Campaign, America's largest LGBT civil rights organization, praised Pope Francis for shifting Catholic theology to be more accepting of the LGBT community.
"Today, Pope Francis took a significant step for inclusion and acceptance in the Catholic Church by embracing unions for same-sex couples and affirming that LGBTQ Catholics are a part of their religious family," HRC President Alphonso David said in a statement.
"By shifting Catholic theology in a more inclusive direction and making clear that LGBTQ people have a right to their own families, Pope Francis is letting LGBTQ Catholics know that being a person of faith and being LGBTQ are not mutually exclusive ... Many members of the LGBTQ community have had difficulty engaging with places of worship because they have not been accepting of LGBTQ people. We are hopeful that this is another in line of many actions toward full inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ people in Catholicism, and in all faiths."
James Martin, a Jesuit priest who also serves as editor at large of America Magazine, said in a statement on Twitter that Pope Francis' comments are "a major step" for the Catholic Church.
"It is in keeping with his pastoral approach to LGBT people, including LGBT Catholics, and sends a strong signal to countries where the church has opposed such laws," Martin wrote.
Retired Democratic politician Howard Dean also celebrated Francis' comments on Twitter, noting: "I knew I liked this Pope. This took a lot of courage and I am sure there are political knives out for him in the Vatican. This is a true act of Christian compassion and an example for all Christians not just Catholics."
Conservative Catholics saw the comments as a betrayal of Scripture.
Fr. Darin Schmidt, a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls in South Dakota who currently serves as pastor of St. Anthony of Padua in Hoven and St. Augustine in Bowdle, argued in a series of tweets that the pope does not have any authority to challenge God's plan for the human family.
"Can someone remind me what magisterial weight a documentary has? Maybe the problem for many is that we don't ignore nearly enough. If I know what God has revealed about human sexuality and His plan for the human family, then I also know that no bishop on earth has any authority to change it," Schmidt wrote.
Writer Maike Hickson who has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church urged Pope Francis to immediately recant the statements or risk being seen as a heretic.
"Any words of a pope spoken in public do have a terrible weight. And they reveal his attitude toward Church doctrine, irreversible doctrine, doctrine that comes straight out of Holy Scripture. He must make an immediate recantation or will be under suspicion that he is a heretic," Hickson noted on Twitter.