Pope Francis has made headlines twice in as many weeks over his public denouncement of laws that criminalize LGBTQ+ people, including at the end of an apostolic visit to two African nations. But what impact will the pope’s insistence that “being homosexual is not a crime” have in regions with criminalization laws and in the wider church?
Francis reiterated his condemnation during an in-flight interview returning from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, with the latter nation criminalizing same-gender relationships. The New York Times reported on how some Catholics in these countries responded to the pope’s comments, noting “the mere mention of gay people prompted immediate condemnation” with one Catholic commenting, “If you do a crime, you should be penalized.”
Archbishop Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla of Juba, South Sudan, denied that LGBTQ+ issues were top of mind in a nation facing severe challenges of conflict and poverty. Per the Times:
“‘Change could be adopted in different stages. To some people, it’s not really necessary to make changes in that direction,’ he said, adding that he himself had never seen anyone imprisoned ‘because of his being gay.’ He said that the criminalization issue was entirely absent from public and private debate in South Sudan.
“But he was skeptical of the West’s inflicting its views of sexuality on African cultures. ‘I believe that these situations cannot be equalized,’ Archbishop Ameyu said. ‘It should be treated from country to country.’ He added that Francis had made clear that it was most important to respect human dignity.”
But, as Bondings 2.0 reported previously, some LGBTQ+ advocates in Africa have welcomed the pope’s condemnation of criminalization laws. This positive kind of response also came from other regions and church observers.
Toni Reis, president of Aliança Nacional LGBTI+ in Brazil and a married gay Catholic, said Francis’ words were “a message that needs to be assimilated by at least 70 countries that still criminalize homosexuality in some way, including 11 countries in which the death penalty can be applied.” The Washington Blade noted that Reis and his husband previously received a warm note from the pope on the occasion of their children being baptized.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement that the pope’s initial comments in the Associated Press interview were “a game changer in the fight to decriminalize LGBTQ people and also illustrate the work that needs to be done with religious leaders to finally show that being LGBTQ is not a sin.
Some world leaders added positive responses two weeks ago, including Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg who is gay, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the United Nation’s expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, and leaders of ILGA World. The group’s executive director, Julia Ehrt, commented:
“‘We urge the Holy See to turn these words into concrete action. The Catholic Church and its institutions can and should play an active role in supporting decriminalization efforts across the world and within the United Nations and multilateral fora, where demands to scrap these profoundly wrong laws have long been reiterated.'”
Fr. Alexander Santora, pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph Church in Hoboken, New Jersey, wrote in a column that the pope’s comments “are not only rocking the Catholic church but the entire world. And that is exactly what he intended to do.” He cited several LGBTQ+ or ally Catholics from his parish who likewise affirmed the good Francis has done.
Michael O’Loughlin wrote in America that change under Pope Francis has been occurring and this denouncement of criminalization laws is another step forward:
“The pope’s willingness to speak thoughtfully about topics until very recently considered taboo in the church has given bishops the freedom to explore these topics even further. It is difficult to imagine a cardinal writing an essay denouncing homophobia as “demonic” and reframing the debate around homosexuality not as one about rules but rather as one about love without the tacit permission granted by the pope by way of his previous comments and gestures.
“Some critics have said that until the church changes its doctrinal teaching related to homosexuality, welcoming words remain empty gestures. But Francis, and some bishops, seem determined to find a middle way in which they work within the church’s tradition in order to champion God’s love.”
Finally, Christopher Lamb, Vatican correspondent for The Tablet, provided a commentary about the wider possibilities of the pope’s statements:
“But it is significant that when the Pope talked about whether homosexual behaviour is a sin, he stressed that it is also a sin to lack charity to your neighbour.
“In other words: stop singling out gay people.
“Furthermore, the Pope’s statement of fact that homosexuality is part of the ‘human condition’ could also open the door to a revision of the Church’s catechism where the homosexual ‘inclination’ is described as ‘objectively disordered’. . .
“When it comes to LGBTQ Catholics, the temptation is to exclude or reject, but Francis is showing this is the very opposite of what it means to be Catholic, which by definition means universal and all-embracing.”
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, February 8, 2023