Pope Francis defended the right of gay couples to enter into legally recognized civil unions in a documentary that premiered at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday.
In the film, "Francesco" by Evgeny Afineevsky, the Argentine pope says that gay people have the right to be in a family.
"These are children of God, they have the right to a family," Francis says in the film, speaking in Spanish. "What we have to create is a law of civil union, they have the right to be legally protected. I have defended that."
According to biographer Austen Ivereigh, the future pope backed civil unions for gay couples while he was still the archbishop of Buenos Aires and known as Jorge Bergoglio.
But Francis has always voiced opposition to gay marriage, saying that marriage should only be between a man and woman.
"'Marriage' is a historic word," he told French sociologist Dominique Wolton in a 2017 book of interviews.
"Always among human beings, and not only in the Church, it has been between a man and a woman. You can't just change that like that."
"Since the beginning of the pontificate the Pope has spoken of respect for homosexuals and has been against their discrimination," Vatican expert Vania de Luca told RaiNews.
"The novelty today is that he defends as pope a law for civil unions."
After becoming pope in 2013, Francis took an unprecedented welcoming tone towards homosexuals, launching his famous phrase, "Who am I to judge?" and welcoming gay couples to the Vatican on several occasions.
The two-hour documentary traces the seven years of his pontificate and his travels.
Among the most moving moments of the film is the Pope's phone call to a gay couple, parents of three young children, in response to a letter they sent him saying how ashamed they were to bring their children to the parish.
Francis invites them to continue to go to church regardless of the judgements of others.
In the past, he has regularly said gay people should be accepted in their parishes and urged parents not to reject their gay children.
Chilean Juan Carlos Cruz, an activist against sexual abuse within the Church, accompanied the director to the film screening on Wednesday.
"When I met Pope Francis he told me he was very sorry about what happened. Juan, it is God who made you gay and he loves you anyway. God loves you and the Pope loves you too," says Cruz in the film.
The Pope's open stance towards civil unions marks a step away from a 2003 document prepared by the Vatican's dogma office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
At the time, the body opposed official recognition for homosexuals, saying it could "devalue the institution of marriage", recalled Vatican expert Christopher Lamb of British Catholic newspaper The Tablet.
Russian-born Afineevsky, who attended the Pope's general audience in the Vatican on Wednesday, was nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy in 2016 for "Winter of Fire" about the 2013-2014 protests in Ukraine.
In 2018 he received three Emmy nominations for "Cries from Syria" about the civil war.