Pope says homosexuality ‘not a crime,’ but still a sin

Pope Francis speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Vatican, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.
Pope Francis speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Vatican, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.
AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

Pope Francis made headlines this week when he told the Associated Press that “being homosexual is not a crime,” though he also described gayness as a form of sin.

During a wide-ranging interview on January 24, the pope called on Catholic bishops to recognize the dignity of all people, even as he conceded that some bishops still support laws criminalizing homosexuality. He also voiced support for the United Nations’ initiative to combat laws criminalizing homosexuality, which is still a problem in dozens of countries around the world.

The pope described such laws “unjust” and called on the Catholic Church to help fight against those laws.

“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 of homosexuality, Francis said, “It’s not a crime. Yes, but it’s a sin. Fine, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime.”

The comments drew praise from national and local LGBTQ Catholic groups. DignityNY, a New York-based branch of a queer Catholic organization, had been encouraging the Vatican to speak out about this issue for more than a decade.

“This is a very positive development,” Jeff Stone of DignityNY told Gay City News in a phone interview on January 25.

Stone compared the development to a time in 2010 when the Vatican opposed the United Nations’ effort to decriminalize homosexuality worldwide. Now, with the church finally speaking up, Stone stressed the importance of the global influence of the Catholic Church.

“This could well have an important effect around the world,” Stone explained. “Governments do pay attention to what the Vatican says, not only in historically Catholic countries, but many other countries.”

DignityNY has joined the effort to improve attitudes about the LGBTQ community in other parts of the Catholic world. The group is involved in Rainbow Catholics, an effort involving more than 30 countries focused on assisting people in parts of the world where LGBTQ people are suffering severe repression.

New Ways Ministry, an LGBTQ Catholic group led by executive director Francis DeBernardo, was also thrilled to hear the pope’s comments.

“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,” DeBernardo said in a written statement. “Most important, the pope highlights that being LGBTQ+ is not sinful and criminal, but harming one’s neighbor is most certainly both. That simple principle is a bedrock of Catholic teaching.”

While Pope Francis has been widely hailed for taking a more welcoming stance on LGBTQ issues, the reality is mixed. Even moments of apparent progress have been dampened — including in 2020 when the Catholic Church stepped in and clarified the pope’s sympathetic comments about the idea of civil unions, saying that he was referring to the rights of gay and lesbian people to be accepted by their own families, not to form families of their own. In 2021, the pope angered people worldwide when the Catholic Church reiterated its opposition to marriage equality.

The pope has also had a problematic record on transgender and non-binary individuals — and the latest announcement appeared to omit trans folks. In a 2017 book called “Politics and Society,” the pope was quoted as saying that marriage equality arises out of “gender ideology” and that books are teaching “that they can choose their own sex. Why is sex, being a woman or a man, a choice and not a fact of nature? This favors this mistake.” In 2020, the pope did meet with transgender individuals who were sheltering in a church in Rome, according to Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.