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Plot thickens over origins of pope’s civil union endorsement

The Vatican refused on comment on whether it edited documentary footage.

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Pope Francis endorsed same-sex civil unions for the first time as pope while being interviewed for a feature-length documentary (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Pope Francis endorsed same-sex civil unions for the first time as pope while being interviewed for a feature-length documentary (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Pope Francis endorsed same-sex civil unions for the first time as pope while being interviewed for a feature-length documentary (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Questions swirled on Thursday about the origins of Pope Francis’ bombshell comments endorsing same-sex civil unions, with all evidence suggesting he made them in a 2019 interview that was never broadcast in its entirety.

The Vatican refused to comment on whether it cut the remarks from its own broadcast or if the Mexican broadcaster that conducted the interview did.

And it did not respond to questions about why it allowed the comments to be aired now in the documentary Francesco, which premiered on Wednesday.

In the movie, which was shown at the Rome Film Festival, Francis said gay people have the right to be in a family since they are “children of God”.

“You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this,” the pope said. “What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”

Those comments caused a firestorm, thrilling progressives and alarming conservatives, given official Vatican teaching prohibits any such endorsement of homosexual unions.

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A couple outside St Peter’s Square at the Vatican during a 2008 candle-lit demonstration for gay rights (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

A couple outside St Peter’s Square at the Vatican during a 2008 candle-lit demonstration for gay rights (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

AP/PA Images

A couple outside St Peter’s Square at the Vatican during a 2008 candle-lit demonstration for gay rights (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

While serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis endorsed civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriages. However, he had never come out publicly in favour of legal protections for civil unions as pope.

One of Francis’ top communications advisers, the Rev Antonio Spadaro, insisted the pope’s comments were old news, saying they were made during a May 2019 interview with Mexican broadcaster Televisa.

“There’s nothing new because it’s a part of that interview,” the Rev Spadaro told the Associated Press after the premiere. “It seems strange that you don’t remember.”

But Televisa did not air those comments when it broadcast the interview – nor did the Vatican when it put out its recordings of it. The broadcaster has not commented on the intrigue.

The Vatican frequently edits the pope in official transcripts and videos, especially when he speaks on sensitive issues. Yet another version of the footage was apparently available in the Vatican archives, which were opened to filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky.

Televisa has not confirmed that the comments were made during its interview, but the scene of the documentary is identical to the Televisa interview, including the yellow background, a chair in the corner and slightly off-centre placement of the chain of Francis’ pectoral cross.

The official 2019 Vatican News transcript of that interview, as well as the official Vatican edit, contains no such comment on the need for legal protections for civil unions. The official edit does include his comments on the need for gay people to feel they are part of a family, as he has said previously.

Further muddying the waters is the fact that Afineevsky, when pressed by reporters, said the pope made the comments to him directly, through a translator, but declined to say when.

When AP interviewed Afineevsky on October 14, the director was asked if he realised at the time that Francis’ comments were going to grab headlines.

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Director Evgeny Afineevsky is awarded with the Kineo Movie for Humanity award at the Vatican (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

Director Evgeny Afineevsky is awarded with the Kineo Movie for Humanity award at the Vatican (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

AP/PA Images

Director Evgeny Afineevsky is awarded with the Kineo Movie for Humanity award at the Vatican (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

Afineevsky dodged the question about the origin of the quote and seemed to not appreciate its significance. But he said that he hoped journalists would take more away from the film.

“If journalists will be focusing on this movie only on that, then it will be a pity,” he said. “But I think that’s one of the issues that our world needs to understand, that we’re all equal.”

The head of the Vatican communications branch, Paolo Ruffini, refused to speak to reporters who attended an award ceremony Thursday in the Vatican gardens for Afineevsky, and the director himself kept his distance.

The Catholic Church teaches that gay people must be treated with dignity and respect but that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”. A 2003 document from the Vatican’s doctrine office stated the church’s respect for gay people “cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions”.

Doing so, the Vatican reasoned, would not only condone “deviant behaviour,” but create an equivalence to marriage, which the church holds is an indissoluble union between man and woman.

That document was signed by the then-prefect of the office, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI and Francis’ predecessor.

Afineevsky, who is gay, had expressed surprise after the premiere that the pope’s comments had created such a stir, saying Francis was not trying to change doctrine but was merely expressing his belief gay people should enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals.

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