ROME — Pope Francis expressed support for same-sex civil unions in remarks revealed in a documentary film that premiered on Wednesday, a significant break from his predecessors that staked out new ground for the church in its recognition of gay people.
The remarks, coming from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, had the potential to shift debates about the legal status of same-sex couples in nations around the globe and unsettle bishops worried that the unions threaten what the church considers traditional marriage — between one man and one woman.
“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered,” Francis said in the documentary, “Francesco,” which debuted at the Rome Film Festival, reiterating his view that gay people are children of God. “I stood up for that.”
Many gay Catholics and their allies outside the church welcomed the pope’s remarks, though Francis’ opposition to gay marriage within the church remained absolute.
His conservative critics within the church hierarchy, and especially in the conservative wing of the church in the United States, who have for years accused him of diluting church doctrine, saw the remarks as a reversal of church teaching.
“The pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the longstanding teaching of the church about same-sex unions,” said Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., adding that the remarks needed to be clarified.
There was little doubt that Francis, recorded on camera, made the statements during his pontificate. But there was confusion on Wednesday about when he had said them and to whom. The Vatican dismissed them as old news.
Francis has a tendency for making off-the-cuff public remarks, a trait that maddens both supporters and critics alike. The comments shown in the film are likely to generate exactly the sort of discussion the pope has repeatedly sought to foster on issues once considered forbidden in the church’s culture wars.
Francis had already drastically shifted the tone of the church on questions related to homosexuality, but he has done little on policy and not changed teaching for a church that sees its future growth in the Southern Hemisphere, where the clerical hierarchy is generally less tolerant of homosexuality.
The remark “in no way affects doctrine,” the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis, told the television channel of the Italian bishops conference on Wednesday evening.
The remarks in the documentary were in keeping with Francis’ general support for gay people, but were perhaps his most specific and prominent on the issue of civil unions, which even traditionally Catholic nations like Italy, Ireland and Argentina have permitted in recent years.
The director of the documentary, Evgeny Afineevsky, told The New York Times that Francis had made the remarks directly to him for the film. He did not reply to a question about when the remarks were made by the pope.
The Vatican and allies of Francis publicly cast doubt on the notion that the pope said the remarks to Mr. Afineevsky, asserting that the pontiff instead had made them to a Mexican journalist, Valentina Alazraki, in an interview in the Vatican in May 2019. Earlier on Wednesday, Ms. Alazraki had told The Times that she did not recall the pope making the comments to her.
In 2010, as Argentina was on the verge of approving gay marriage, Francis, then cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, supported the idea of civil unions for gay couples.
As pope in 2014, he told the Corriere della Sera, Italy’s largest newspaper, that nations legalizing civil unions did so mostly to give same-sex partners legal rights and health care benefits and that he couldn’t express a blanket position.
“You have to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety,” he said then.
But Francis’ remarks in the documentary, explicitly supporting civil unions as pope and on camera, had the potential for much greater impact on the debate over the recognition of gay couples by the church.
“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family,” Francis says at another point in the documentary. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”
Church teaching does not consider being gay a sin, but it does consider homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” and by extension holds that a homosexual orientation is “objectively disordered.”
Church doctrine also explicitly states that marriage is between a man and a woman, a teaching Francis unwaveringly supports.
Francis’ predecessors had also expressed their opposition, though, to civil unions.
In 2003, under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, its doctrinal watchdog then led by the future Pope Benedict XVI, issued “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons.”
The document read, “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.”
Those views were not incorporated into church teaching, but bishops and some bishops conferences, which can be politically influential in certain countries, often opposed civil unions as a threat to the church’s view of traditional marriage.
Advocates within the church for civil unions seized on the pope’s remarks in the documentary as a major blow to those efforts and as a breakthrough in the church’s long-painful relationship with gay people.
“This is a major step forward in the church’s relationship with L.G.B.T.Q. people,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who has written a book on how to make gay Catholics feel more welcome in the Church, and who has met with the pope and served as a consultor for the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications.
“It’s going to be harder for bishops to say that same-sex civil unions are a threat against marriage,” he said. “This is unmistakable support.”
Some of the pope’s most consistent critics inside the Catholic hierarchy agreed that the pope seemed to support civil unions, and they were vexed by it.
“The church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships,” said Bishop Tobin of Providence.
But the pope’s remarks do not mean he has altered church teaching on the subject, and Francis has a track record of making encouraging remarks for gay people.
Starting in 2013, on a papal flight back from Brazil, his openness to gay people stunned the faithful inside the church, and secular fans outside of it, who were more accustomed to doctrinaire scoldings about homosexuality and gay marriage.
“Who am I to judge,” Francis famously answered when asked about a supposedly gay priest on that flight.
In his landmark 2016 document on the theme of family — titled “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love” — Francis rejected same-sex marriage, yet called on priests to be welcoming to people in nontraditional relationships, such as gay people, single parents and unmarried straight couples who live together.
He also once told Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean sexual abuse survivor and gay person whom he befriended, and who is featured in the documentary, that “God made you this way and loves you this way, and the pope loves you this way.”
But under Francis, the church also rejected what it cast as the notion that individuals can choose their gender, and he also told the leaders of seminaries that it was better not to admit gay candidates.
“If you have the slightest doubt, it’s better to refuse them,” he once said. “Better that they live the ministry or their consecrated life than that they live a double life.”
Critics pointed out that his church’s rules forced gay priests into a double life.
But those who support the church being more welcoming of gay couples were pleased by the pope’s remarks in the film.
“A pope sets the tone for the church and what he is doing is signaling to bishops and church leaders that a welcome for gay and lesbian couples has to go forward,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an organization of L.G.B.T. Catholics.
He noted that in the United States, the Supreme Court was poised to weigh whether Philadelphia may exclude a Catholic agency that does not work with same-sex couples from the city’s foster-care system. In Germany’s more liberal Catholic hierarchy, bishops had built momentum in their push to bless same-sex unions. Those deliberations and others, he hoped, would be influenced by the pope’s remarks.
“They will ripple through the church and legislatures and courts and the personal and spiritual lives of Catholics who have been waiting for years and decades for an affirming word from their church leader,” Mr. DeBernardo said. “The significance is immense.”
Elizabeth Dias contributed reporting from Washington, and Ruth Graham from Warner, N.H.