ROME — Pope Francis condemned “unjust” laws that criminalize homosexuality in an interview published Wednesday, adding that the Roman Catholic Church should do more to end such legislation and that bishops should welcome LGBTQ people into the church, especially in countries where such laws exist.
“Being homosexual is not a crime,” Francis said in the interview with the Associated Press, adding that God loves all his children just as they are. Francis called on all countries with laws criminalizing homosexuality — 67 of them in total, including nearly a dozen that have the death penalty, he noted — to undo those laws. “That’s wrong. It’s very wrong. I don’t think anyone should be discriminated against,” he said.
Several of the countries are in Africa, which the pope will visit next week.
Asked whether the church should work toward repealing the laws, Francis said, “Yes, yes, they have to do it, they have to do it.”
Francis said there needed to be a distinction between sin and a crime when it came to homosexuality. The Catholic Church considers homosexual acts “intrinsically disordered” and a sin but believes that people in the LGBTQ community should be welcomed with respect and sensitivity.
“First, let us distinguish sin from crime,” Francis said during the 75-minute interview conducted Tuesday in Santa Marta, the Vatican hotel he calls home. “But it is also a sin to lack charity with one another.”
He also called on bishops who support laws that punish or discriminate against the LGBTQ community to undergo a “process of conversion” and instead apply “tenderness.”
Francis quoted the catechism of the church, which teaches that LGBTQ people should not be marginalized but welcomed.
The pope has made outreach to the LGBTQ community one of the pillars of his papacy. A few months after his election in 2013, he famously said, “Who am I to judge?” when asked during a papal flight from Brazil about priests who might be gay. In a 2020 documentary, he appeared to endorse same-sex civil unions. The Vatican later clarified that the pope believed that gay couples deserved civil protections, including legal rights and health care benefits, but that his comments had not marked a change in church doctrine.
In 2021, many in the LGBTQ community took Francis to task for a ruling issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith barring priests from blessing same-sex unions, calling such blessing “not licit.”
Reaction to the pope’s call for decriminalization was immediate.
“Pope Francis’ historic call for the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide is an immense step forward for L.G.B.T.Q. people, their families, and all who love them,” said the Rev. James Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America, who said he specifically discussed the issue with Francis at various meetings. “This is the first time that any pope has made such a clear statement about this issue of life and death.”
He added that the pope “is siding, as he always does, with life, with human dignity, and with the belief that all of us are created in the image of God.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, chief executive of GLAAD, an advocacy group, called Francis’ remarks “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.”
Francis addressed a wide range of other issues in the interview, including the diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China -- “The main thing, the dialogue doesn’t break” -- and the use of guns by civilians for self-defense in the United States after the recent mass shootings in California: It “becomes a habit,” Francis said. “Instead of making the effort to help us live, we make the effort to help us kill.”
The 86-year-old pontiff said he was in “good health,” but he also revealed that diverticulosis, a colon condition, had returned. Francis had surgery in 2021 to remove a section of his colon because of the condition.
In recent years, Francis’ health has caused intermittent concern. Last summer, he postponed a challenging trip to Congo and South Sudan (which he will make next week) because of problems with his right knee. He told the AP that a slight bone fracture in his knee had healed after laser and magnet therapy.
These setbacks, combined with his age, have fueled speculation that Francis might follow in the steps of his predecessor and step down. Benedict XVI, who died last month, retired in 2013, the first pope in 600 years to do so.
Francis has said in past interviews that he has never ruled out retirement, though he had no immediate plans to do so. But he said in the interview that he had not thought about drafting norms to “regulate” papal retirements.
He also addressed the sexual-abuse crisis, saying more remained to be done. He pledged the church would be more transparent when it handled such cases. “It is what I want. It is what I want, isn’t it?” he said. “And with transparency comes a very beautiful thing, which is shame.”
He added: “I prefer a church that is ashamed because it discovers its sins, which God forgives,” rather than a church that “hides its sin, which God does not forgive.”
Francis also addressed the wave of criticism from cardinals and bishops of his papacy that only intensified after Benedict’s death on Dec. 31, describing it like an unpleasant “rash that bothers you a bit.” But he said that it was important that his critics were able to speak freely.
“If it’s not like this, there would be a dictatorship of distance, as I call it, where the emperor is there and no one can tell him anything,” Francis said. “Criticism helps you to grow and improve things.”