Pope Francis condemned laws criminalising homosexuality during an airborne press conference on Sunday, February 5th, returning from a three-day visit to Congo and South Sudan. The pontiff also used the occasion to criticise political factions within the Catholic Church that wished to score points following the death of Pope Benedict XVI last month.
The comments were made on the papal plane alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Presbyterian Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshield. Both Protestant leaders had joined the pontiff on the ecumenical trip to raise awareness about the ongoing conflict in South Sudan.
The pope drew attention to the 67 countries that still criminalise homosexuality, declaring people with homosexual tendencies to be children of God who ought to be welcomed into the Catholic Church:
This is not right. Persons with homosexual tendencies are children of God. God loves them. God accompanies them … condemning a person like this is a sin. Criminalising people with homosexual tendencies is an injustice.
Catholic gay rights groups greeted the declaration as a potential milestone moment in relations with the Holy See. Official Catholic teaching currently maintains that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” though it opposes unjust discrimination. Pope Francis has previously indicated his support for same-sex unions.
The Protestant faith leaders accompanying Pope Francis agreed with the remarks. The Church of England is currently experiencing a heated dispute over whether to approve same-sex unions ahead of its General Synod: a dispute that has raised the possibility of the CoE’s disestablishment by the British government.
The Pope’s statement follows an interview with the Associated Press last month where Francis lambasted legislation that penalised homosexuals and reprimanded bishops for not doing enough to fight discrimination against them. Pope Francis also called for a distinction between what is a crime and what is a sin when it comes to homosexuality, linking the support for legislation prohibiting homosexuality among certain bishops to cultural attitudes.
During the press conference, Francis also addressed rumours that his relationship with his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI had been a contentious one, stating that he was on good terms with the deceased pope before his death. Controversy was generated last month when a posthumous book by Pope Benedict, among other things, raised questions about the extent of homosexual practices in Catholic seminaries.
The comments by Pope Francis come ahead of increased calls to review Catholic doctrine on LGBT matters as part of the Synod on Synodality, which is being used by the Vatican to consult with Catholics globally.