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Pope backing same-sex civil union brings backlash and praise

by Tola Mbakwe

Pope Francis has got a mixed reaction after he endorsed same-sex civil union in a documentary that premiered on Wednesday. 

His backing for legal homosexual unions comes midway through Francesco, which delves into issues such as the environment, poverty, migration, racial and income inequality, and the people most affected by discrimination.

"Homosexual people have the right to be in a family," he said in one of his sit-down interviews for the film.

"They are children of God. What we have to have is a civil union law, that way they are legally covered."

Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis, told Premier: "I wasn't too surprised that this was his view. I guess I was surprised that he had said it so clearly, and so boldly, especially about gay people having the right to have a family. [I knew] this was going to provoke a reaction."

Some conservative Catholics have said the Pope's statement "contradicts" the teachings of the Church.

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence in Rhode Island said in a statement: "The Pope's statement clearly contradicts what has been the long-standing teaching of the Church about same-sex unions. The Church cannot support the acceptance of objectively immoral relationships."

However, Ivereigh told Premier what the Pope said does not go against the teaching of the Catholic Church because the Pope still maintains that marriage is for heterosexual couples. 

"This in no sense is about… sacramental marriage," he said. "It's about what's called civil marriage. It's about In other words, the state.

"Secondly, the Church has had varied opinions about the question of legal recognition for couples who are not married, which is not something, that's covered by Church doctrine. It's been left in general to the bishops in different countries to determine that question, because of course, these questions differ enormously from culture to culture and country to country."

French, German and Italian bishops have long advocated for legal rights for long term cohabiting couples. 

Ivereigh added: "I think some conservative Catholics have pointed to a couple of Vatican documents, in particular one in 2003 which opposes legal recognition of same-sex unions in particular.

"Here's where we get some of the complexity because, of course, so often civil union laws are directed specifically at gay couples, and I think that's where the Church has a problem, because they believe that all permanent committed cohabiting relationships should be supported, not to single out gay relationships...because that would be to make them like marriage, which they're not, in the Church's view."

Despite the backlash, Pope Francis has received a lot of support. 

A spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who is a Catholic, said the pope's comment was "a very positive move".

"The Secretary-General has spoken out very forcefully against homophobia in favour of LGBTQ rights, that people should never be persecuted or discriminated against just for who they love," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The Jesuit priest who has been at the forefront in seeking to build bridges with homosexuals in the Church, Rev James Martin, praised the Pope's comments as "a major step forward in the church's support for LGBT people".

"The Pope's speaking positively about civil unions also sends a strong message to places where the Church has opposed such laws," he said in a statement.

Ivereigh told Premier he believes the Pope's statement will lead to more bishops fighting for gay rights. 

"I do think a lot of bishops will look at this and say, the Pope has given us permission to be much clearer in our advocacy of rights for gay people," he said.

"It's very important that because the Church values marriage as a unique institution, heterosexual for life...the uniqueness of marriage should be upheld in law. But that shouldn't be used as an excuse to discriminate against people who aren't married and who have other kinds of arrangements."

Listen to Premier's full interview with Austen Ivereigh here:

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