“Being homosexual isn’t a crime,” Pope Francis said during an exclusive interview January 24 with The Associated Press. It was a declaration that, like many statements from Francis, sparked immediate controversy among his conservative detractors, but was welcomed by his supporters — including a majority of Catholics in the U.S.
U.S. Catholics are more supportive of LGBTQ rights than Americans overall. A Gallup study of polls taken from 2016 to 2020, for example, found that on average 69 percent of Catholics, including 56 percent of weekly church attendees, favored legal recognition of same-sex marriages.
In recent years Pope Francis has expanded his commentary on how discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community is wrong. Yet he still reinforced that Catholic Church teaching remains that homosexual activity is a sin. “It’s not a crime. Yes, but it’s a sin. Fine, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime.”
Catholic Church teaching states that homosexual acts are sinful, or “intrinsically disordered.” Francis said that gay people must be treated with dignity and respect. “It’s also a sin to lack charity with one another,” he added.
But in an exchange with Jesuit writer and LGBTQ ally Father James Martin, Pope Francis added clarification and equivocation on the sin comments, which Martin had said in Spanish sounded more like joking. In his letter to Martin, Francis said, “I was simply referring to Catholic moral teaching, which says that every sexual act outside of marriage is a sin.”
The exchange was reported by Vatican News and Martin published the exchange on his website, including the hand-written letter in Spanish. (The Pope does not speak English.)
In the interview with AP, asserting that laws criminalizing homosexuality are “unjust,” Francis said, “We are all children of God, and God loves us as we are and for the strength that each of us fights for our dignity.”
As part of that assertion, Francis also called out Catholic bishops who use anti-LGBTQ laws to support and mitigate their own anti-LGBTQ stance. Francis said, “These bishops have to have a process of conversion.” He added that these bishops should instead “welcome homosexuals” with “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us.”
The acknowledgment that Catholic bishops support laws that criminalize homosexuality or discriminate against LGBTQ people was crucial to the Pope’s statement. Francis noted that the cultural backgrounds of people in general and bishops specifically contributed to these views, but that it was essential to change those misperceptions and to “recognize the dignity of everyone.”
Francis has been evolving on homosexuality throughout his decade as pope. In 2013, Francis said to reporters, “Who am I to judge?” when he was asked about gay priests. Speaking to reporters on a flight back from Brazil, he asserted the Catholic Church’s position is that homosexual acts were sinful, but insisted homosexual orientation was not.
He was responding to questions about whether there was a “gay lobby” in the Vatican. “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis said gay people “should not be marginalized but integrated into society.”
Over the past decade Francis has ministered to and supported the gay and transgender communities in Rome. He has met with trans people four times in the last year according to the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Prior to his papacy, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis supported legal protections for same-sex couples, but did not support gay marriage, which is against Catholic doctrine.
These progressive views on LGBTQ people marks a significant shift from Francis’s recently deceased predecessor, Benedict XVI, who was strident on the issue of homosexuality and had issued encyclicals on the subject. Benedict said that gay marriage was one of several threats to the traditional family that undermined “the future of humanity itself.”
In his 2016 memoir, Benedict said that while no one pressured him to resign, a “gay lobby” in the Vatican had tried to influence papal decisions.
In contrast, Pope Francis has long urged inclusivity. His latest statement was greeted with excitement by gay-rights advocates. No other pope has defended LGBTQ people or spoken out against and called for abolition of anti-LGBTQ laws.
That latter part of Francis’s interview got little media attention: his declaration that since the criminalization of homosexuality is “unjust” the Catholic Church should work toward ending such laws. “It must do this. It must do this,” he said.
ILGA(International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) World publishes a State-Sponsored Homophobia report, a world survey of sexual orientation laws. Lucas Ramón Mendos, Research Coordinator at ILGA World and lead author of the 2020 State-Sponsored Homophobia report notes that 69 UN member states continue to criminalize consensual same-sex activity with a significant number still enforcing the death penalty for consensual homosexual acts.
ILGA World says at least 34 UN member States have actively enforced such criminalizing laws over the past five years, but the number is possibly much higher. “Wherever such provisions are in the books,” Mendos explains, “people may get reported and arrested at any time even just under the suspicion of having sex with someone of the same gender. Courts actively prosecute and sentence them to jail, public flogging, or even death.”
According to ILGA World, even where these laws are not actively enforced, they serve as a threat and intimidation and can be directly linked to harassment, stigmatization, discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people.
PGN has reported extensively on such instances over that period, notably in Africa, India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Eastern bloc nations, and the Caribbean. In September 2022, two Iranian lesbian activists were sentenced to death. Also in September 2022, Italy elected a virulently anti-LGBTQ far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and with her the first Fascist government since World War II. Meloni promised “pro-family” reforms.
In 2021, the Taliban takeover meant more repression and deaths for women and LGBTQ people in Afghanistan. The relentless repression in Russia has disappeared activists and kept Brittney Griner in wrongful detention for nearly a year.
In addition, the U.S. has come under fire recently from human rights groups for anti-LGBTQ legislation promoted by GOP politicians in the states and federally. In 2022 there were more than 400 such laws proposed and many signed and in January alone more than 100 such bills are already in the legislatures, proposed by the GOP.
The United Nations has called for an end to laws criminalizing homosexuality. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on countries to “repeal laws that criminalize homosexuality, abolish the death penalty for offences involving consensual sexual relations, harmonize the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual conduct, and enact comprehensive anti-discrimination laws.”
The UN says such laws “violate rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination” and are a “breach of countries’ obligations under international law to protect the human rights of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Pope Francis’s statements on homosexuality were in advance of a planned trip to Africa, where half of all such laws are common. As PGN has reported previously, many of these laws in Africa and the Caribbean are relics from British colonization. They can also be, as they are in the Middle East, attributed to Islamic law.
The AP reported that the issue of laws against homosexuality “had never been raised in an interview, but Francis willingly responded, citing even the statistics about the number of countries where homosexuality is criminalized.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic LGBTQ advocacy group, said in a statement, “The pope is reminding the church that the way people treat one another in the social world is of much greater moral importance than what people may possibly do in the privacy of a bedroom.”
Robert McElroy, bishop of San Diego who was elevated to cardinal by Pope Francis last August, is highly progressive and pro-LGBTQ. In the Jesuit magazine “America,” McElroy wrote on January 24, “It is a demonic mystery of the human soul why so many men and women have a profound and visceral animus toward members of the L.G.B.T. communities. The church’s primary witness in the face of this bigotry must be one of embrace rather than distance or condemnation.”
Pope Francis was sanguine about conservative blowback, telling the AP that “Criticism helps you to grow and improve things,” noting that there must not be “a dictatorship of distance… where the emperor is there and no one can tell him anything.”