In comments Catholic LGBTQ advocates described as “historic,” Pope Francis called for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality—making him the first pope to ever take such a stance.
“Being homosexual is not a crime,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press, which was published on Wednesday. “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.”
“And being homosexual is not a crime,” he said again. “It’s a human condition.”
The comments, which were part of a lengthy and wide-ranging interview, did not establish any new doctrine or push any new theological territory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Nor is it counter to Francis’ previous stances on the matter: He has repeatedly urged the church to treat gay people with compassion. He famously said of gay priests, “Who am I to judge?”
But in making comments about laws, Francis is speaking to some of his own bishops. Francis is about to embark on a weeklong trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Eleven countries in the world have a death penalty on the books, and another 56 have other criminal penalties. These laws are concentrated in the Middle East and Africa.
When the AP asked Francis if the church should help to eliminate these laws, he responded, “Yes, yes. It must do this. It must do this.”
He went on to blame the laws on cultural differences and called on bishops in regions with harsh views of gay people to rid themselves of that mentality. “These bishops have to have a process of conversion,” he said.
Fr. James Martin, editor-at-large for the Jesuit magazine America and a prominent proponent of gay rights in the church, described the news as “an immense step forward.” In a statement, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic LGBTQ advocacy group, praised Francis for helping “save lives and promote respect for LGBTQ+ people, particularly in areas where law or social norms make them victims of fear, hatred, violence, and death.” (Francis made news in 2021 when he commended the organization, breaking with the church’s earlier condemnation of it.)
Already, there are rumblings of a conservative backlash. On Wednesday afternoon, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, an outspoken Francis critic, retweeted a conservative Catholic account that quoted Pope John Paul II: “‘Pressure for homosexual relationships to be recognised as a different form of family, which are also entitled to the right to adopt,’ is ‘a violation of God’s law’ and an ‘ideology of evil…seeking to use human rights against humanity and the family.’ ” Strickland thanked John Paul for his “clarity in the truth God has revealed to us.”
Other conservative stalwarts, including the Catholic News Agency, a property of EWTN, argued that Francis’ comments may have actually taken a more conservative stance on homosexuality than the Catholic Church itself. It’s a bit technical, but in short: The Catholic Church does not teach that being gay is a sin. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is specifically “homosexual acts” that are “intrinsically disordered”; gay Catholics are “called to chastity.”
It is unclear from watching the video of this conversation whether Francis is actually agreeing that being gay is a sin or if he is pantomiming a rhetorical argument from the perspective of someone arguing with him. However, given that few, if any, LGBTQ advocates appear to have focused on this particular phrasing from Francis, it seems that most observers have assumed that Francis is conflating homosexuality and “acting on homosexuality,” or otherwise not dwelling on the distinction.
Either way, Francis is not changing anything about the church’s stance, which he has long affirmed. Although Francis has emphasized “compassion,” as recently as 2021, the Vatican reiterated that Catholic priests could not bless same-sex unions because “God cannot bless sin.”
As for why these statements are coming out now: According to the AP, Francis has simply never been asked in an interview before. “Francis willingly responded, citing even the statistics about the number of countries where homosexuality is criminalized,” the AP reported.
The interview covered a number of other hot-button issues in the church, including rumors about Francis’ health. (He said a fracture in his knee had healed and revealed that a highly common colon disease, which required colon surgery in 2021, had returned.) He also responded to speculation about his retirement, saying he had not yet thought about plans for stepping down.
He also addressed the recent attacks by the recently deceased Cardinal George Pell and by Georg Gänswein, Pope Benedict XVI’s personal secretary. “Even though they say he criticized me, fine, he has the right. Criticism is a human right,” Francis said of Pell. “He was a great guy. Great.”
Deflating Gänswein’s narrative of tension between Benedict and Francis, the pope described his predecessor as “a good companion.” “In the face of a doubt, I would ask for the car and go to the monastery and ask,” he said. He also rejected the idea that any criticism leveled against him had anything to do with Benedict. “I wouldn’t relate it to Benedict, but because of the wear-and-tear of a government of 10 years,” he said. “They started to see my flaws and didn’t like them.” Francis’ papacy will mark a decade in March.
He described the bishops and cardinals who oppose him as “like a rash that bothers you a bit” but called on his critics to speak openly.
“You prefer that they don’t criticize, for the sake of tranquility,” he said. “But I prefer that they do it because that means there’s freedom to speak.”
He added: “The only thing I ask is that they do it to my face because that’s how we all grow, right?”