By Joe Holden

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — In a stunning turn of Vatican doctrine, Pope Francis is endorsing same-sex civil unions for the first time. Local Catholic scholars say the pontiff’s statement is deeply complicated.

For an unknown number of Catholics, this news comes as encouraging, but others are questioning how we learned about it through a documentary. Critics say the pope does not use documentaries to offer teachings on religion or morals.

Marking a first as Holy Father, Pope Francis has made an endorsement of civil unions. His remarks came in an interview for “Francesco,” a documentary that premiered Wednesday at the Rome Film Festival.

The Pope said, “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”

Dr. Massimo Faggoli, a Roman Catholic Church historian and professor of religious studies at Villanova University, says any interpretation of the pope’s new statement reverses long-held church teachings and is deeply complicated.

“You got the church now in the age of position from a negative language on sexuality and a more positive, a more pragmatic approach by Pope Francis,” Faggioli said.

Francis has previously supported civil unions as archbishop of Buenos Aires. His remarks in the documentary shift the church away from his conservative predecessors.

Mark Segal, a Philadelphia LGBTQ activist and pioneer, applauded the pontiff’s position.

“For those of us who have followed this pope, I don’t think it’s a very big surprise,” Segal said.

The Archdioceses of Philadelphia said in a statement that “it is important to note that the remarks appeared in the context of a film and not a Church teaching document.”

“There has been much recent attention paid to comments attributed to the Holy Father in a documentary that premiered in Rome this week. It is important to note that the remarks appeared in the context of a film and not a Church teaching document. Further, the references involved civil unions. The Holy Father has consistently affirmed the Sacrament of Marriage as a union between one man and one woman on many occasions just as he has affirmed the need to treat all people with respect and dignity.

“The recent comments underscore the Holy Father’s previous calls for pastoral and cultural sensitivity to the many different journeys of those who walk through life around us.”