Brian McNeill says he's spent 35 years working to change the Catholic Church's "antiquated sexual theology." The president of Dignity Twin Cities called Pope Francis' statement approving same-sex civil unions "the most positive statement from a pope on LGBTQ issues I've seen."

"But it's easy for the pope to say civil society should adopt same-sex unions," added McNeill. "What about changing the Catholic Church?"

Pope Francis became the first pope in history to voice support for same-sex civil unions this week, a move embraced by the LGBTQ Catholic community and their supporters but one that irked traditional Catholics who say the pope has gone too far.

Marriage can happen only between a man and a woman, according to Catholic teachings, and approving civil unions is an affront to the faith, critics say.

"I think his comments are unfortunate," said Frank Schubert, a lead organizer in the unsuccessful 2012 campaign for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

"They will lead to confusion, and they will be used by people who want to advance a political agenda," said Schubert, a consultant for the National Organization for Marriage. "Marriage is what it is. It's between a man and a woman. And it's there for a reason. For the continuation of humanity, to bring children into the world."

It's not the first time Pope Francis has voiced approval for civil unions to provide legal protection for same-sex couples. But the words he spoke during a documentary released this week are considered the most direct support for such unions, and the most controversial.

"Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family," Pope Francis said in the documentary "Francesco," which premiered at the Rome Film Festival. "What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered."

Minnesota is home to an estimated 1 million Catholics, and many followed the flurry of news with great interest.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said the pope's remarks show an "openness to civil unions as a kind of middle way that would allow persons of the same sex in long-term relationships to have legal benefits without a civil redefinition of marriage itself."

"While church teaching on marriage is clear and irreformable, the conversation must continue about the best ways to reverence the dignity of those in same-sex relationships so that they are not subject to any unjust discrimination," said Hebda in a written statement.

Key supporters of Minnesota's failed amendment to ban same-sex marriage declined to be quoted for this story. But they made the point that the pope's words do not change church doctrine, even though they could lead to increased Catholic acceptance of same-sex marriage.

For LGBTQ Catholics such as McNeill and their supporters, the pope's statement doesn't go far enough.

"From [Twin Cities] Dignity's point of view, we've been hoping and waiting a long time for the church to update its sexual theology — that sex can only be open to men and women, in the context of marriage, and for procreation," McNeill said. "Is this moving in that direction? Or is it avoiding this basic question?"

John Thavis, a St. Paul author who reported from the Vatican for three decades, said the statement is significant "and moves the needle a bit." But he noted that Pope Francis hasn't proposed any concrete steps to translate the idea into Catholic policy, such as a Vatican commission to study same-sex unions.

"The pope is setting the tone, not policy," Thavis said. "It was a couple lines in an interview. ... The pope's modus operandi is he makes a public statement and lets Vatican officials scurry to figure out how the new statement fits into church teachings."

Twin Cities Catholics such as Paula Ruddy, long active in the Catholic Church reform movement, nonetheless are buoyed by the pope's remarks and the widespread attention they're receiving.

"Once you say that civil legislation is justified in protecting homosexuals' sexual activity, how can you go on to say it is intrinsically evil?" Ruddy said. "You'd be advocating for the protection of an intrinsic moral evil."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511