(CNN) - Pope Francis reaffirmed the Catholic Church's opposition to gay marriage on Wednesday, but suggested in a newspaper interview that it could support some types of civil unions.
The Pope reiterated the church's longstanding teaching that "marriage is between a man and a woman." However, he said, "We have to look at different cases and evaluate them in their variety."
States, for instance, justify civil unions as a way to provide economic security to cohabitating couples, the Pope said in a wide-ranging interview published Wednesday in Corriere della Sera, an Italian daily. State-sanctioned unions are thus driven by the need to ensure rights like access to health care, Francis added.
A number of Catholic bishops have supported civil unions for same-sex couples, including Pope Francis when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2010, according to reports in National Catholic Reporter and The New York Times.
But Wednesday's comments are "the first time a Pope has indicated even tentative acceptance of civil unions," according to Catholic News Service.
Later on Wednesday, a Vatican spokesman sought to clarify the Pope's remarks.
"The Pope did not choose to enter into debates about the delicate matter of gay civil unions," said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a consultant to the Vatican press office.
"In his response to the interviewer, he emphasized the natural characteristic of marriage between one man and one woman, and on the other hand, he also spoke about the obligation of the state to fulfill its responsibilities towards its citizens."
"We should not try to read more into the Pope’s words than what has been stated in very general terms," Rosica added.
Pope Francis, who marks his first year in office on March 13, has sought to set a more tolerant tone for his 1 billion-member church and suggested that a broad range of topics are at least open for discussion.
In January, the Pope recalled a little girl in Buenos Aires who told her teacher that she was sad because "my mother's girlfriend doesn't like me."
"The situation in which we live now provides us with new challenges which sometimes are difficult for us to understand," the Pope told leaders of religious orders, adding that the church "must be careful not to administer a vaccine against faith to them."
The Vatican later denied that those comments signaled an opening toward same-sex unions.