MEXICO CITY - The Pope's comments in support of gay civil unions did not go far enough and could even harm the campaign for same-sex marriage, LGBT+ rights campaigners said on Thursday.
In a documentary called "Francesco" released on Wednesday, the Pontiff said that gay couples needed legal rights and that "homosexual people have a right to be in a family", some of his clearest language on the subject since his election in 2013.
But after years of opposition by the Catholic Church to gay sex and same-sex marriage, the Pope's comments will do little to advance LGBT+ rights or repair the damage done to gay people, LGBT+ campaigners in majority-Catholic Latin America said.
"Given the Church's history, I don't believe that this approach is one of inclusion with respect to the rights of the LGBT population," said Diane Rodriguez, president of the Ecuadorian Federation of LGBTI Organizations.
"This is more like a wink of the eye, it's not like saying LGBT people should be loved and welcomed."
The Catholic Church teaches that same-sex attraction is not sinful, but homosexual acts are, even though LGBT+ people should be treated with dignity.
Following a high court ruling that was publicly rejected by Catholic Church leaders, Ecuador legalized gay marriage last year, one of 28 countries to do so.
LGBT+ rights activists said the pope's support for civil unions could undermine the campaign for gay marriage in some countries by suggesting a kind of 'separate but equal' alternative.
"Creating an institution that is unequal isn't good because it's also a form of discrimination," said Mariano Ruiz, a board member of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia committee in Latin America.
The Pontiff's latest comments echo his stance as archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he vocally opposed gay marriage prior to its legalization in Argentina in 2010, even as he supported some kind of legal protection for gay couples.
Still Ruiz said the Pope's comments would have a major impact on the faithful.
"For a lot of LGBT+ people, this declaration can change their lives," he said. "It's a paradigm shift, but I'd like to see that discourse transformed into action."
Bolivian LGBT+ activist Ronald Cespedes welcomed the Pope's support amid a push for the national civil registry to recognize a same-sex couple's relationship as a "free union".
Bolivia's constitution recognizes free unions between a man and a woman as having the same rights as civil marriage, including those related to property and children.
"The comments from Pope Francis come at an opportune moment for Bolivia," said Cespedes, who is president of the Diversencia Foundation, a local nonprofit.
"Without a doubt, by being the declarations of someone seen as a leader of the Catholic Church, they will resonate with the Christian population."