Shifting away from the Roman Catholic Church's stringent laws regarding homosexuality for the first time, Pope Francis on Wednesday called for the creation of civil union laws for same-sex couples.

In a feature-length documentary that premiered at the Rome Film Festival, according to the Catholic News Agency, Francis, who since the beginning of his pontificate has taken a more tolerant tone toward homosexuality, said same-sex couples should be "legally covered."

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"What we have to create is a civil union law," he said.

They are children of God

Francis has long expressed an interest in outreach to the church's LGBT followers, but his remarks have often stressed general understanding and welcoming — rather than substantive policies.

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The documentary, "Francesco," is premiering this week in Rome and later in the United States. The pope gave an interview to the filmmaker, Evgeny Afineevsky, saying that "homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family."

"They're children of God and have a right to a family," the pope said.

"Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it," he added.

Representational image.
Representational image.Creative Commons.

Officially, the church teaches that homosexual sex acts are "disordered," and Francis's predecessor, Benedict XVI, called homosexuality an "intrinsic moral evil." Francis has not altered church doctrine, but he has pushed the church away from that stance, to the anger of conservatives, who accuse him of adjusting teaching for modern times.

Francis, who became pope in 2013, gave earlier, oblique signals interpreted as openness to recognizing same-gender civil unions. He has usually framed his comments in pragmatic, curious terms — as someone noticing the possible need for legal recognition for existing families, so they can access civil benefits such as health care.

"This is the first time as pope he's making such a clear statement," the Reverend James Martin, a prominent Jesuit who has advocated for the church to more openly welcome LGBT members, told The Washington Post on Wednesday.

"I think it's a big step forward. In the past, even civil unions were frowned upon in many quarters of the church. He is putting his weight behind legal recognition of same-sex civil unions," Martin said.