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Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 26, 2023
Protesters hold an LGBT rights rainbow flag during a demonstration outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington Dec. 5, 2022, as justices hear arguments in the case of a Colorado website designer who refuses to create websites for same-sex marriages due to her Christian beliefs about traditional marriage. The plaintiff, Lorie Smith, says her First Amendment right to free speech exempts her from a state law that forbids businesses from discriminating based on sexual orientation. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)

Since the early days of Pope Francis’s pontificate, activists have urged him to take a stand against laws in dozens of countries that criminalize homosexuality, arguing that support for them from local church leaders puts lives at risk. At the same time, some Catholics expressed hope that the pope’s early words of qualified support for L.G.B.T. people might signal a broader change, with a more welcoming church on the horizon.

Comments this week, from the pope and a U.S. cardinal, showed progress on both fronts.

Pope Francis, in an expansive interview with The Associated Press—that also covered gun violence, his health and church reform efforts—said the Catholic Church should fight against the criminalization of homosexuality.

“Being homosexual isn’t a crime,” the pope said.

According to the Human Dignity Trust, 67 countries or jurisdictions punish homosexual behavior, with 11 jurisdictions making it punishable by death. In some instances, Catholic leaders have supported laws that punish homosexuality, pointing to the church’s teaching that condemns homosexual behavior.

In his interview, conducted Tuesday in Rome, Francis stated unequivocally, “Being homosexual is not a crime.”

Since the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has undertaken a delicate and, at times depending on one’s point of view, frustrating approach to L.G.B.T. Catholics.

Part of Francis’ interview caused some confusion, in which he seemed to be answering his own rhetorical question that articulated homosexuality is sinful. In fact, church teaching holds that a homosexual orientation is not sinful in itself. In the 1970s, theologians, including the former Jesuit John J. McNeill, argued that homosexuality was a morally neutral orientation, leading to arguments that the church had no basis for condemning sexual acts between two people of the same sex. That line of thinking was quashed in a 1986 letter written by the future Pope Benedict XVI.

“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” wrote the then-head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

In the interview, Pope Francis seemed to be suggesting a retort to his assertion that homosexuality is not a crime, stating, “Yes, but it’s a sin.” The pope then said, “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.

[Editor’s note: In an interview with Outreach conducted on Jan. 27, Pope Francis clarified his comments about homosexuality: "When I said it is a sin, I was simply referring to Catholic moral teaching, which says that every sexual act outside of marriage is a sin." Read more here.] 

Since the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has undertaken a delicate and, at times depending on one’s point of view, frustrating approach to L.G.B.T. Catholics.

He famously asked, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests in 2013, a phrase he referenced in this week’s interview, acknowledging that his assertion “bothered” some people. Francis has also met, with some regularity, L.G.B.T. Catholics, and he has encouraged them to continue to be active in their faith. At the same time, he has defended traditional church teaching on the subject, reminding Catholics that the church considers homosexual acts a sin and that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman.

“The pope is reminding the church that the way people treat one another in the social world is of much greater moral importance that what people may possibly do in the privacy of a bedroom.”

Still, his comments in the new interview were viewed by secular and Catholic advocates for L.G.B.T. people as a step forward in recognizing their inherent dignity.

Writing at Outreach, James Martin, S.J., said that Francis is framing the persecution of L.G.B.T. people through a pro-life lens and said his comments stand out because so few other bishops have taken similar stands.

“Overall, though, despite pleas from LGBTQ people suffering persecution, few bishops or bishops’ conferences have condemned the criminalizing laws that the pope rejected today, even though this is, after all, a life issue,” Father Martin wrote. “As ever, Pope Francis is siding with life, with human dignity and with the belief that all of us are created in the image and likeness of God.”

“This call for decriminalization will help 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 DeBernardo, the head of New Ways Ministry, 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 that what people may possibly do in the privacy of a bedroom.”

Pope Francis: Bishops should seek to lead with “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us.”

Fabrice Houdart, an advocate for greater L.G.B.T. representation in the corporate world, wrote in his newsletter about the pope’s comments: “This is positive and encouraging news as the Catholic Church—particularly in sub-Saharan Africa—was proactively fighting decriminalization until recently.” (Mr. Houdart took issue with the language about sin, saying that the pope’s comments were “not a panacea.”)

In the interview, Pope Francis said that bishops who support discriminatory laws against L.G.B.T. people should instead focus on God’s love.

“These bishops have to have a process of conversion,” the pope said. Bishops should seek to lead with “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us.”

Earlier this week, a U.S. bishop wrote an essay arguing along those very lines.

In a lengthy essay about the ongoing synod process published this week at America, Cardinal Robert McElroy, the bishop of San Diego, writes about some of the challenges that the ongoing dialogue has identified, which include Catholic outreach to L.G.B.T. people.

Cardinal McElroy, who at 68 is the nation’s youngest cardinal, rejects in his essay the notion that divorced and remarried Catholics, as well as L.G.B.T. Catholics, should be excluded from receiving the Eucharist.

Cardinal McElroy: “The church’s primary witness in the face of this bigotry must be one of embrace rather than distance or condemnation.”

But Cardinal McElroy, who previously served as an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco, also recognized that the synodal conversations identified challenges facing L.G.B.T. Catholics extending beyond the so-called Communion wars.

“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,” Cardinal McElroy continued. “The church’s primary witness in the face of this bigotry must be one of embrace rather than distance or condemnation.”

Perhaps the most remarkable part of Cardinal McElroy’s essay, in addition to calling homophobia “demonic,” is that he rejects the notion that L.G.B.T. Catholics who abstain from sexual activity are somehow more deserving of God’s love than those who do not.

“The distinction between orientation and activity cannot be the principal focus for such a pastoral embrace because it inevitably suggests dividing the L.G.B.T. community into those who refrain from sexual activity and those who do not,” he writes.

Cardinal McElroy continues: “Rather, the dignity of every person as a child of God struggling in this world, and the loving outreach of God, must be the heart, soul, face and substance of the church’s stance and pastoral action.”

Church teaching is clear that gay and lesbian people must be treated with dignity and respect, and most reasonable people would not view imprisonment for one’s sexual orientation as following that teaching.

Taken alone, the pope’s comments calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality, along with the exhortation for Catholics to fight such laws, perhaps do not feel all that revolutionary, especially when read from a Western context. After all, church teaching is clear that gay and lesbian people must be treated with dignity and respect, and most reasonable people would not view imprisonment for one’s sexual orientation as following that teaching. What might be more remarkable is that no pope before him had so clearly challenged these laws.

Still, the pope’s comments are remarkable because they stand in sharp contrast to the rhetoric L.G.B.T. Catholics have become accustomed to hearing come from Rome over the past several decades.

In 2000, Rome played host to World Pride, an event that then-Pope John Paul II said filled him with “bitterness” and which he described as an “offense to the Christian values of a city that is so dear to the hearts of Catholics across the world.” During Benedict’s papacy, in 2012, he included same-sex marriage in a list of threats to the family that could “threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.”

Francis, by contrast, has praised priests and Catholic sisters for their work with L.G.B.T. Catholics, expressed support for same-sex civil unions and now called on Catholics to fight laws that criminalize homosexuality. That, when paired with the insights from Cardinal McElroy, makes clear that bigger changes in the church’s approach to these issues continues.

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.

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