VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis criticized laws that criminalize homosexuality as “unjust,” saying God loves all his children just as they are and called on Catholic bishops who support the laws to welcome LGBTQ people into the church.
“Being homosexual isn’t a crime,” Francis said during an exclusive interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.
Francis acknowledged that Catholic bishops in some parts of the world support laws that criminalize homosexuality or discriminate against LGBTQ people, and he himself referred to the issue in terms of “sin.” But he attributed such attitudes to cultural backgrounds, and said bishops in particular need to undergo a process of change to recognize the dignity of everyone.
“These bishops have to have a process of conversion,” he said, adding that they should apply “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us.”
Francis’ comments, which were hailed by gay rights advocates as a milestone, are the first uttered by a pope about such laws. But they are also consistent with his overall approach to LGBTQ people and belief that the Catholic Church should welcome everyone and not discriminate.
Some 67 countries or jurisdictions worldwide criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity, 11 of which can or do impose the death penalty, according to The Human Dignity Trust, which works to end such laws. Experts say even where the laws are not enforced, they contribute to harassment, stigmatization and violence against LGBTQ people.
“Ethically speaking, Pope Francis is correct in differentiating between sins and crimes. He is also doubtlessly right that Christianity should treat all human beings, regardless of their sexual proclivities, with respect and dignity,” said Andrew Walker, associate professor of Christian ethics and apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“But when these most recent comments are taken within the broader context of Pope Francis’ view that culture war issues are a distraction, it’s hard not to interpret these remarks as an incremental step in the same direction,” Walker said in written comments to Baptist Press.
Francis quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church in saying gay people must be welcomed and respected, and should not be marginalized or discriminated against.
“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,” Francis said, speaking to the AP in the Vatican hotel where he lives.
Francis’ remarks come ahead of a trip to Africa, where such laws are common, as they are in the Middle East. Many date from British colonial times or are inspired by Islamic law. Some Catholic bishops have strongly upheld them as consistent with Vatican teaching, while others have called for them to be overturned as a violation of basic human dignity.
“Despite clear biblical teaching that homosexuality is a sin, Christians have good-faith disagreements about whether the state should criminalize homosexuality,” Walker said.
In 2019, Francis had been expected to issue a statement opposing criminalization of homosexuality during a meeting with human rights groups that conducted research into the effects of such laws and so-called “conversion therapies.”
In the end, after word of the audience leaked, the pope didn’t meet with the groups. Instead, the Vatican No. 2 did and reaffirmed “the dignity of every human person and against every form of violence.”
“From the start of his papacy, Pope Francis has appeared embarrassed by what his own magisterium teaches on this topic,” Walker said. “Previous comments have also sown confusion that gives momentum to forces that wish to see the Catholic Church alter its teaching.”
On Tuesday, Francis said there needed to be a distinction between a crime and a sin with regard to homosexuality. Church teaching holds that homosexual acts are sinful, or “intrinsically disordered,” but that gay people must be treated with dignity and respect.
Dan Darling, director of the Land Center at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Baptists “believe the only valid expression of sexuality is in a covenant marriage between and a man and a woman and all other expressions are sinful,” but added: “Baptists have historically believed that there is a difference between sins and crimes.”
“While we believe in biblical marriage as best for human flourishing in the nation, we also believe that it is the role of the church to preach the Good News of the Gospel that rescues people from the enslavement of sexual sin and not the role of the state,” Darling said in written comments for Baptist Press.
Bantering with himself, Francis articulated the position: “It’s not a crime. Yes, but it’s a sin. Fine, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime.”
“It’s also a sin to lack charity with one another,” he added.
Francis has not changed the church’s teaching, which has long riled gay Catholics. But he has made reaching out to LGBTQ people a hallmark of his papacy.
One of the cardinals recently appointed by the pope – Robert McElroy, the bishop of San Diego — is among those Catholics who would like the church to go further, and fully welcome LGBTQ people into the church even if they are sexually active.
“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,” McElroy wrote Tuesday in the Jesuit magazine America. “The church’s primary witness in the face of this bigotry must be one of embrace rather than distance or condemnation.”
Starting with his famous 2013 declaration, “Who am I to judge?” — when he was asked about a purportedly gay priest — Francis has gone on to minister repeatedly and publicly to the gay and transgender communities. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he favored granting legal protections to same-sex couples as an alternative to endorsing gay marriage, which Catholic doctrine forbids.
Despite such outreach, Francis was criticized by the Catholic gay community for a 2021 decree from the Vatican’s doctrine office that said the church cannot bless same-sex unions.
In 2008, the Vatican declined to sign onto a U.N. declaration that called for the decriminalization of homosexuality, complaining the text went beyond the original scope. In a statement at the time, the Vatican urged countries to avoid “unjust discrimination” against gay people and end penalties against them.