THE Pope has urged Roman Catholic bishops worldwide to back the decriminalisation of homosexuality, ahead of a visit early next month to Africa (News, 10 June 2022), where gay sex faces public stigma and harsh sanctions.
“Being homosexual isn’t a crime, it’s a human condition,” Pope Francis told the Associated Press (AP) this week. “Even the worst murderer, the worst sinner, should not be discriminated against. Every man and woman must have a window in their life where they can turn their hope and see the dignity of God.”
The Pope made the unprecedented comments in a wide-ranging interview on Tuesday, a week before travelling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, where he will be accompanied by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, the Rt Revd Dr Iain Greenshields.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Primate of South Sudan, the Most Revd Justin Badi-Arama, who chairs the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA), warned that current moves by the Church of England to allow church blessings for same-sex couples constituted “unfaithfulness to the God who has spoken through His written word”, and would “exacerbate divisions” in the worldwide Anglican Communion (News, 25 January).
Pope Francis said that a distinction needed to be made “between sin and crime”, adding that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which details RC doctrine, stipulated that homosexuals “should not be marginalised or discriminated against”.
“It’s also a sin to lack charity towards one another,” Pope Francis, who will mark the tenth anniversary of his election on 13 March, said.
“We are all children of God — and God loves us as we are and for the strength that each one of us has to fight for our dignity.”
Articles 2257-9 of the 1992 Catechism, partially amended under Pope Francis, state that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law”, and cannot be approved under any circumstances; but it says that men and women with “homosexual tendencies”, while “called to chastity”, should also be “accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity”, avoiding “every sign of unjust discrimination”.
In December 2008, the Vatican declined to back a call by the United Nations for homosexuality to be decriminalised, referring to imprecise wording. In March 2021, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rejected any possibility of blessing same-sex unions.
Pope Francis has personally called, however, for greater acceptance of gay people. In 2013, he urged Roman Catholics “show mercy, not condemnation”, and argued that people who experience same-sex attraction should not be judged.
In a March 2019 interview with Spain’s La Sexta newspaper, he said that homosexual tendencies were not a sin, and urged parents to support their gay children, while in October 2020 and September 2021 interviews, he backed the right to same-sex civil unions.
The Pope’s latest call for decriminalisation looks set to face criticism from conservative Roman Catholics around the world, where homosexual acts are legally sanctioned in 67 countries, including in many Commonwealth jurisdictions, and incur the death penalty in at least ten, according to the London-based Human Dignity Trust, which defends LGBTQ rights.
The Pope’s call was welcomed this week, however, by LGBTQ campaigners in the United States, where at least a dozen states have laws against gay sex.
The New York-based Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said that it would send an “important message” globally against violence and discrimination. The RC advocacy group New Ways Ministry, founded by Sister Jeannine Gramick, said that the RC hierarchy’s past silence on anti-homosexual laws had had “devastating effects”.
The RC Bishop of San Diego, Cardinal Robert McElroy, told the US Jesuit magazine America that hatred for gays and lesbians represented “a demonic mystery of the human soul”, which should be countered by the Church with a “primary witness” of “embrace rather than distance”.
In a separate television interview, the magazine’s Jesuit editor at large, Fr James Martin, said that the Pope had not changed RC doctrine, but had made a gesture which had the potential to “save lives”.
He went on to say that RC bishops in countries such as Ghana, where the Church had supported anti-gay laws, would find the Pope’s words challenging and be forced to “pay attention” and “do some soul-searching”.
In his AP interview, Pope Francis said that laws criminalising or discriminating against homosexuality were “unjust” and should be opposed by the Church, which should support moves to welcome LGBTQ people into its ranks.
He said that some RC bishops had backed anti-gay laws because of their cultural backgrounds, and now faced a “process of conversion” in applying the “tenderness God has for each of us”.
The Pope said that he preferred not to face criticism, but also accepted it as a “human right” which was helpful for “growing and improving”.
“The criticism began when they started to see my flaws and didn’t like them,” he told AP. “The only thing I ask is that they do it to my face because that’s how we all grow.”
The death penalty is currently used for homosexual activity in Iran, northern Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen, according to the Human Dignity Trust, and is a legal option in Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauretania, Pakistan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
At least 14 countries criminalise transgender activity under labels such as “cross- dressing” and “impersonation”, while many others target trans citizens under laws against vagrancy, hooliganism, and public order offences.