"It wasn't as if he came out and approved them," Dolan said. "He said, 'Rather than quickly condemn them, let's just ask the questions as to why that has appealed to certain people."
In an interview published last week by an Italian newspaper, Francis reiterated the church's longstanding opinion that "marriage is between a man and a woman." But, he said, "We have to look at different cases and evaluate them in their variety."
The Vatican moved quickly to clarify the comments.
"The Pope did not choose to enter into debates about the delicate matter of gay civil unions," Rev. Thomas Rosica, a consultant to the Vatican press office, said in a statement. "We should not try to read more into the Pope’s words than what has been stated in very general terms."
But according to the Catholic News Service, it was the first time a pope has "indicated even tentative acceptance of civil unions."
When asked for his own views on same-sex marriage, Dolan said he is concerned it could "water down" the sanctity of traditional marriage.
"It's not something that's just a religious, sacramental concern," Dolan said. "It's also the building block of society and culture. So it belongs to culture. And if we water down that sacred meaning of marriage in any way, I worry that not only the church would suffer, I worry that culture and society would.”
Dolan was also asked about Michael Sam, the Univ. of Missouri football player, likely an NFL draft pick, who recently came out as gay.
"Good for him," Dolan said. "I would have no sense of judgment on him. God bless ya. I don't think, look, the same bible that tells us that teaches us well about the virtues of chastity and the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people. So I would say, 'Bravo.'"
Since being installed as pontiff in 2013, Francis has changed the tone coming out of Rome from one of exclusion to inclusion, irking some conservative Catholics in the process.
"I haven't sensed too much bristling among the conservatives," Dolan said. "They honestly will say, 'His style is a little different and might periodically cause us a little angst.' But in general they too seem to be rejoicing in what you might call the evangelical fervor, the good interest in the life of the church."