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In New Documentary, Pope Francis Endorses Civil Unions For Same-Sex Couples

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Pope Francis has made his clearest statement yet on same-sex marriage. In a documentary about the Argentine-born pope, Francis says same-sex unions should have legal protections. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The documentary is called "Francesco" and premiered today at the Rome Film Festival. In it, filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky tackles many of the issues championed by Pope Francis - climate change, income inequality, interfaith relations and migrant rights. But the topic that will likely spark the most controversy will be the pope's endorsement of civil unions for gay couples.

In the film, Pope Francis says homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They are children of God. He goes on, nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it. We have to create a civil union law. I stood up for that, he adds.

In fact, this is not the first time Francis has spoken in favor of civil unions for gay couples. But it's the clearest and perhaps the most empathetic. When Francis - or rather, Jorge Bergoglio - was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he opposed legislation to approve same-sex marriages but supported some kind of legal protection for the rights of gay couples.

Shortly after becoming pope, he made his first big headlines when he was asked about gay people. Francis famously replied, who am I to judge? That was quite a shift in tone from traditional Catholic teaching. In 2003, the Vatican's office on doctrine issued this statement. Respect for homosexual persons, it said, cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or legal recognition of homosexual unions. Placing them on the same level as marriage, it added, would mean approval of deviant behavior.

In other remarks in the new film likely to stir controversy among American conservatives, Pope Francis condemns the Trump administration's policy on family separation at the U.S.-Mexican border. It's cruelty and separating kids from parents goes against natural rights, the pope says. It's something a Christian cannot do.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LELE MARCHITELLI'S "LATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.