ROME — Pope Francis broke new ground in the Roman Catholic Church acceptance of same-sex civil unions by endorsing some relationships between gay people during an interview for a documentary that premiered Wednesday.
Francis, who has long taken a more socially progressive view than his predecessors, said gay people should not be deprived of family life because of their sexuality.
He drew a line between marriage, which often involves religious consecration, and civil unions, which afford couples full legal rights.
"Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God," Francis, 83, said in the film titled "Francesco" — his papal name in Italian — which made its debut in the Rome Film Festival.
"You can't kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this," he said. "What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered."
His statements were quickly welcomed by many in Roman Catholicism looking to expand the church's ranks.
"His statement on civil unions is historic and a major step forward in the church's support of LGBT people," said Father James Martin, an American Jesuit priest and longtime advocate for the role of gay people in Catholicism.
But observers said the statements were bound to draw ire from the church's more conservative wing.
In parts of the world where the long-declining Catholic Church hopes to build new membership, gay acceptance could backfire. Homosexuality is still illegal in some countries.
"There will be real protest about this," said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert with Italy's L'Espresso magazine. "The protest will come from people who are convinced you can expect anything from this pope and who believe he is vague and contradictory."