Pope Francis got the world talking.

This week he voiced support for same-sex civil unions in remarks revealed in a documentary film. Without question, it is a stark departure from his predecessors, and a position that is certain to endear him to the gay community and shamed by conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.

It is truly historic.

As one commentator noted, “The remarks had the potential to shift debates about the legal status of same-sex couples in nations around the globe and unsettle bishops worried that the unions threaten what the church considers traditional marriage — between one man and one woman.”

Throughout the week, many gay Catholics and their allies outside the church welcomed the pope’s remarks, though Francis’ opposition to gay marriage within the church remained absolute.

His conservative critics within the church hierarchy, and especially in the conservative wing of the church in the United States, who have for years accused him of diluting church doctrine, saw the remarks as a reversal of church teaching.

“The pope’s statement clearly contradicts what has been the longstanding teaching of the church about same-sex unions,” said Bishop Thomas Tobin, of Providence, Rhode Island.

As The New York Times noted this week, this pope has a tendency for making off-the-cuff public remarks, a trait that maddens both supporters and critics alike.

But to many it is not all that surprising.

Francis had already drastically shifted the tone of the church on questions related to homosexuality, but he has done little on policy and not changed teaching for a church that sees its future growth in the Southern Hemisphere, where the clerical hierarchy is generally less tolerant of homosexuality.

As the Times article noted, the remarks in the documentary were in keeping with Francis’ general support for gay people, but were perhaps his most specific and prominent on the issue of civil unions, which even traditionally Catholic nations like Italy, Ireland and Argentina have permitted in recent years.

The director of the documentary, Evgeny Afineevsky, told The New York Times that Francis had made the remarks directly to him for the film. He did not reply to a question about when the remarks were made by the pope.

In The Guardian, James Alison, a Catholic priest and theologian, wrote, “Anyone with any pastoral experience knows that in dealing with an individual’s personhood, you start from where they are. Given a very gay and very closeted episcopate in many countries, for whom serene and adult conversation about these things has, until recently, been almost impossible, the question has largely been: How long would it take for the basic good sense of the majority of Catholic people and what they have learned about human sexuality to percolate upwards so that senior clergy needn’t be frightened of it? And it is here that Pope Francis has been so good. He clearly isn’t frightened of the issue.

This pope has not been afraid of many high-profile issues.

Pope Francis encouraged governments and corporations around the world to protect the planet against climate change and help the poor in a TED talk.

After much anticipation, Pope Francis released Laudato Si (“Praised Be”), an encyclical on climate and justice to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.”

In it Pope Francis moved environmental protection to the fore. He says that all life depends on clean air and water, and a stable and reliable climate. As a chemist by background and with a team of scientists and an observatory at the Vatican, the Pope is clear that climate change is the greatest threat to life our Earth has ever seen — and that it is caused by humans. And as a priest, he stands in protection and care for the 1.2 billion Catholics world-wide.

The pope has made a point of linking the relationship between global poverty, catastrophic inequality and consumerism.

Alison posits why this week’s step toward a more progressive stance is notable.

“In part because the holy father is clearly representing such civil unions as a good and desirable thing, to be actively promoted, rather than a lesser evil.”

Alison concludes, “The important thing has been the achievement of legal guarantees for stable living. Soon the first generation of gay and lesbian kids for whom civil marriage was never an impossibility will reach marriageable age. That we have the cake, and the Pope’s affirmation that we should have it, is wonderful. The discussion about the shape and colour of the icing will no doubt be all that and more.”

We could not agree more.

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