Pope Francis: ‘Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family’ © Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty

Pope Francis has broken with Catholic orthodoxy by voicing his support for same-sex unions, a liberalising move for the papacy that is likely to delight reformers and anger religious conservatives.

“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family,” Francis said in an interview for the film Francesco that premiered in Rome on Wednesday, the Catholic News Agency reported.

“They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it,” the pope was reported to have said in the film about his time as pontiff.

Francis has since becoming leader of the Catholic church in 2013 voiced support for the recognition of the rights of same-sex couples by the state. But he has never before been as vocal on the need for gay couples to be supported by wider society. 

Francis suggests in the film that civil partnerships would be the best way to achieve this, without mentioning the prospect of same-sex Catholic marriages. He has previously endorsed civil unions when he was serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires but did not support gay marriage.

“What we have to have is a civil union law, that way they are legally covered,” he said in the film. 

A gay couple at their civil union ceremony in Rome: the pope’s comments will be welcomed by those who believe he is bringing the Catholic church in line with the modern world © Gregorio Borgia/AP

Francis’ comments run against established Catholic doctrine and are likely to stoke further controversy about his reformist papacy among his conservative critics.

But they will be welcomed by supporters who believe that the pontiff is updating the Catholic church to bring it in line with the modern world.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the branch of the Vatican responsible for defending Catholic orthodoxy, said in 2003 that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions”.

It also said that same-sex unions do not “deserve specific categorical recognition”, and that there were “good reasons for holding that such unions are harmful to the proper development of human society”.

Francis has previously upset Catholic conservatives by voicing support for relaxing the way the church treats people who divorce and remarry.

In 2016 after he opened the possibly of remarried couples receiving communion, several conservative cardinals published a letter arguing that the lack of clarity caused by his comments divided the Catholic church. 

Some liberal Catholics were left disappointed this year when Francis did not respond to a request from bishops ministering in the Amazon rainforest to consider allowing married men to become priests. The request was aimed at reversing a lack of available ministers in the remote region.

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