Same-sex couples should be recognized under the law, Pope Francis said in a new documentary that premiered in Rome today.
"What we have to create is a civil union law," he said in an interview for the documentary Francesco, according to Jesuit magazine America. "That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that."
This is being treated as major news, the first time that a pope has called for legal recognition of gay relationships. However, it's reportedly not a new position for Francis. When he was an archbishop in Buenos Aires, America notes, he supported civil unions for same-sex couples as an alternative to legal recognition of gay marriage, which the Catholic Church was resisting.
The Church ultimately lost that debate; Argentina legalized gay marriage in 2010.
As pope, Francis has been supportive of embracing the Catholic Church's LGBT members as part of its family. Catholic teaching opposes gay sexual activity and marriage recognition but does not call for the rejection or abandonment of LGBT people. Francis had not at this point, though, made any statements as pope that staked out a position like the one he took in Buenos Aires—that same-sex couples should be entitled to some form of legal recognition.
This does not change the Catholic Church's official teachings or position on same-sex relationships. In just a couple of weeks, the Supreme Court will be hearing a case about whether a Catholic foster agency can refuse to place children in the homes of same-sex couples.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis openly revealing his support for legal recognition for same-sex couples, even if it's not called "marriage," is a significant cultural shift and an indicator of how much the Overton window on LGBT policies has been moved. The Catholic Church is following the path of millions of others who have slowly come around to accept LGBT relationships as valid. The "civil union" compromise was once an extremely popular position for many Americans, including many Democratic politicians before around 2012, when polls fully shifted to support for full marriage recognition.
It's too soon to speculate about whether Pope Francis' statement will lead the whole Church down the same path or whether the teachings will someday change. But it's worth the attention precisely because it's the first time a pope has directly supported legal recognition of same-sex relationships, even if he doesn't call it "marriage." That's a big deal.