Updated at 2:42 p.m. ET
Pope Francis has called for legislation to protect same-sex couples, according to comments he made in a new documentary that mark a break from Catholic doctrine.
"Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They are children of God and have a right to a family," the pope said in an interview in the documentary Francesco, which premiered Wednesday at the Rome Film Festival. "What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered."
Francis noted he has stood up for civil unions before, but his remarks in the documentary go beyond what he has said previously and sharply diverge from the view of his predecessors. LGBTQ rights groups hailed the comments as a major step, but, along with conservative religious groups, they raised questions about the context of the quotes delivered in a movie and how much weight the comments held.
Before he became the pontiff, then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio opposed same-sex marriage legislation but supported some level of legal protection for same-sex couples.
Shortly after becoming pope in 2013, he made big headlines when asked about reports of gays in the clergy, Francis answered, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
It was a shift in tone from traditional Catholic teaching.
In 2003, the Vatican's office on doctrine — under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI — taught that "respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions." Placing them on the same level as marriage, it added, would mean approval of "deviant behavior."
Advocacy groups representing LGBTQ people welcomed Francis' new remarks.
DignityUSA, an organization representing LGBTQ Catholics, said it is "cautiously optimistic" but that the group wants to see the remarks in context and hear the Vatican's response.
"If this statement is allowed to stand, this could be a global game changer for gay and lesbian people, for same sex couples, for LGBTQ people broadly. I think we're just going to have to see where it lands," Marianne Duddy-Burke, DignityUSA's executive director, told NPR.
"I'm very conscious of the tremendous impact that this could have, particularly for queer people in countries where there are no legal protections at this point, where they are very much subject to violence and to social marginalization," Duddy-Burke said.
in a tweet following the news, Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said, "This is a significant step forward for inclusion and acceptance in the Catholic Church, letting LGBTQ Catholics know that being a person of faith and being LGBTQ are not mutually exclusive."
But the pope's latest comments drew some criticism.
The remarks are a form of "pastoral outreach," said Bill Donohue, president of the U.S.-based Catholic League, a conservative group. "It's not going to change doctrine. He doesn't have the authority to do that anyhow."
He continued, "I think it's going to be greeted with a great deal of mass confusion on the part of the laity. ... I think the lack of clarity is the most disturbing thing about this."
The documentary, by filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky, tackles many of the issues championed by Pope Francis such as climate change, income inequality, interfaith relations and migrant rights.
In another remark in the film that could stir controversy among U.S. conservatives, Francis condemns the Trump administration's policy on family separation at the southern border.
"It's cruelty, and separating kids from parents goes against natural rights," the pope said, adding that "it's something a Christian cannot do."
That's an echo of the pope's past criticism, in 2016, of then-candidate Donald Trump's campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
NOEL KING, HOST:
In a documentary film that's coming out soon, Pope Francis explicitly endorses civil unions for same-sex couples. That is the clearest statement he has made as pope on the subject. Not surprisingly, those comments are getting a lot of attention. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The comments came in a documentary film covering various aspects of the Francis papacy. Speaking to the filmmakers, the pope said, quote, "Homosexuals are children of God and have a right to a family." He said, what we have to create is a civil union law. That way, they are legally covered. I stood up for that. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he made statements in support of civil unions for same-sex couples - not marriage, which is a sacrament. But now he is speaking as the pope, which gives his words much more weight.
MARIANNE DUDDY-BURKE: If the statement is allowed to stand, this could be a global game changer for gay and lesbian people, for same-sex couples, for LGBTQI people broadly.
GJELTEN: Marianne Duddy-Burke is executive director of Dignity USA, which advocates for LGBTQ Catholics. She says the pope's comments are significant if they come to represent the church's position.
DUDDY-BURKE: It will be seen as recognizing the reality of same-sex relationships, of the fact that gay and lesbian people are able to make lifelong commitments to one another and that those relationships should have legal protection.
GJELTEN: The uncertainty comes from the fact that the pope's comments conflict with official church teaching, which is that there can be no legal recognition of, quote, "homosexual unions." Bill Donohue is president of the Catholic League, a conservative group.
BILL DONOHUE: It's not going to change doctrine. He doesn't have the authority to do that anyhow. He has to be the pope in communion with the bishops. That's the magisterium, or the teaching body of the church.
GJELTEN: Donahue thinks the pope may have been speaking in a pastoral way, suggesting that everyone is part of God's family.
DONOHUE: Sounds like he's throwing the gay community a bone. And he has to be careful of that because no matter what side you're on, people want you to speak with clarity on the issue. And I think it's going to be greeted with a great deal of mass confusion on the part of the laity.
GJELTEN: Advocates for LGBTQ people are among those wanting the pope's comments to be more clear. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ civil rights organization in the country, said it is hopeful the pope's comments signal a further step toward full acceptance and inclusion in Catholicism and all faiths.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.