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Advocates 'cautiously optimistic’ over pope’s comments on same-sex civil unions

As Pope Francis became the first pontiff to endorse civil unions for same-sex couples, local LGBTQ advocates on Wednesday embraced his new stance as a significant, if partial, step toward inclusion and equality.

“Given that the church’s policy is still that homosexuality is inherently disordered, that’s still got a ways to go,” said Tanya Neslusan, executive director of MassEquality, an LGBTQ rights group. “But I think quite frankly, especially with some of the issues that the Catholic Church has had in the past, it’s phenomenal, actually, to have a pope who’s recognizing the validity and protections” that should be afforded to the LGBTQ population.

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Neslusan and other local advocates said they believe they have a long road to travel before the church fully accepts their community. But Francis’s comments, unprecedented from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, represented “a major advance and a major step forward," said Arline Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

"It will have an impact across our country — even though we already have the right to marry — and across the globe,” said Isaacson. “There are many people who want to be supportive of LGBTQ families who sometimes feel they have to hold back because of their faith, and this gives them permission to follow their heart, and do what they would like to do but were afraid of doing.”

Francis made the comments in a new documentary, “Francesco,” which premiered Wednesday at the Rome Film Festival.

"Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God,” Francis says in a sit-down interview for the film. “You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”

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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 favor of civil unions as pope.

Through a spokesman, the Archdiocese of Boston declined to comment. But the pope’s comments, which represented a major shift for the church, drew the ire of some prominent members of the local Catholic community.

Hours after Francis’s comments became public, Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin called same-sex civil unions “objectively immoral” and said the Catholic church should not accept them.

“Individuals with same-sex attraction are beloved children of God and must have their personal human rights and civil rights recognized and protected by law,” Tobin said in a statement. “However, the legalization of their civil unions, which seek to simulate holy matrimony, is not admissible.”

C. J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, which opposes same-sex marriage, said in a statement that Francis’s comments represented a “scandalous, disappointing and unprecedented departure from perennial Catholic teaching.”

“In analyzing the pope’s remarks, it is important to remember that the Church is not a corporation where the CEO sets policy," he added. "The Pope has no authority to reverse magisterial teachings or to ignore scripture. He can set a tone, but not change doctrine.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, who directs DignityUSA, a Medford group that advocates for LGBTQ Catholics, said the pope’s comments could “represent an international game-changer and a major step forward for LGBTQI equality.”

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“It would remove a key obstacle to LGBTQI inclusion in many places around the world, especially in areas where LGBTQI people are especially vulnerable to discrimination and violence," she said.

Still, her group wonders “how the Pope’s comments fit with existing Catholic teachings that condemn same-sex relationships as ‘intrinsically evil,' " she added.

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, praised Francis for his comments and issued a similar call for broader acceptance.

“Today, Pope Francis took a significant step for inclusion and acceptance in the Catholic Church by embracing unions for same-sex couples and affirming that LGBTQ Catholics are a part of their religious family,” David said in a statement. “By shifting Catholic theology in a more inclusive direction and making clear that LGBTQ people have a right to their own families, Pope Francis is letting LGBTQ Catholics know that being a person of faith and being LGBTQ are not mutually exclusive.”

David said his organization continues to push the Catholic church and all religious leaders to “fully embrace” the LGBTQ community. That means supporting marriage equality, as well as same-sex couples' rights to have families and be “full members” of their faith communities.

“Many members of the LGBTQ community have had difficulty engaging with places of worship because they have not been accepting of LGBTQ people," David said. "We are hopeful that this is another in a line of many actions toward full inclusion and acceptance for LGBTQ people in Catholicism, and in all faiths.”

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Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.