Francis first spoke out in an interview with The Associated Press on January 24, in which he stated that laws criminalizing homosexuality were “unfair” and that “homosexuality is not a crime.”
As is often the case, Francis then imagined a conversation with someone raising the issue of the Church’s official teaching that homosexual acts are sinful or “inherently disordered.”
“Fine, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime,” Francis said in the mock conversation. “It is also a sin not to have charity with one another.”
His comments calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality were hailed by LGBTQ advocates as a milestone that would help end harassment and violence against LGBTQ people. But his reference to “sin” raised the question of whether he believed that being gay was a sin in itself.
Rev. James Martin, an American Jesuit who heads the US-based ministry of outreach for LGBTQ Catholics, asked Pope Francis for clarification and published the pope’s handwritten response on the outreach website late Friday.
In his note, Francis reiterated that homosexuality “is not a crime” and said he came forward “to emphasize that criminalization is neither good nor just”.
“When I said it was a sin, I was simply referring to Catholic moral teaching, which states that any sexual activity outside of marriage is a sin,” Francis wrote in Spanish, underscoring the last sentence.
But alluding to his case-by-case approach to pastoral ministry, Francis noted that even this teaching is dependent on consideration of circumstances “which can reduce or eliminate errors”.
He acknowledged that he could have been clearer in his comments to the AP. But he said he used “natural and colloquial language” in the interview that didn’t require precise definitions.
“As you can see, I repeated something in general. I should have said, ‘It’s a sin, like any sexual act outside of marriage.’ That is, to speak of the “cause” of sin, but we know well that Catholic morality not only considers the matter, but also values freedom and intention; and this for every kind of sin,” he said.
About 67 countries or jurisdictions worldwide criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity, 11 of which can or do impose the death penalty, according to The Human Dignity Trust, which works to end such laws. Experts say that even where the laws are not enforced, they contribute to harassment, stigma and violence against LGBTQ people.
Catholic teaching forbids same-sex marriage because the sacrament of marriage is a lifelong bond between a man and a woman. It reserves sexual intercourse to married couples while banning artificial contraception.
During his decades-long pontificate, Francis has upheld this teaching but made reaching out to LGBTQ people a priority. He has emphasized a more merciful approach to applying Church doctrine to accompany rather than condemn people.