Francis first made the comments in a Jan. 24 interview with The Associated Press, in which he stated that laws criminalizing homosexuality are “unjust” and that “being gay is not a crime.”
As he often does, Francis then imagined a conversation with someone who raised the issue of the Church’s official teaching, which states that homosexual acts are sinful or “intrinsically disordered.”
“Okay, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime,” Francis said in the mock conversation. “It is also a sin to lack charity to each other.”
His remarks calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality were hailed by LGBTQ advocates as a milestone that would help end harassment and violence against LGBTQ individuals. But his reference to “sin” raised questions about whether he believed that just being gay was itself a sin.
Rev. James Martin, an American Jesuit who heads the US-based Outreach Ministry for LGBTQ Catholics, asked Francis for clarification and printed the pope’s handwritten response on the Outreach website late Friday.
In his note, Francis reaffirmed that homosexuality “is not a crime”, saying he spoke out “to emphasize that criminalization is neither good nor just”.
“When I said it is a sin, I was simply referring to Catholic moral teaching, which says that any sexual act outside of marriage is a sin,” Francis wrote in Spanish, underlining the last sentence.
But in a nod to his case-by-case approach to pastoral care, Francis noted that even that teaching depends on the 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 conversational language” in the interview that didn’t ask for precise definitions.
“As you can see, I was repeating something in general. I should have said, “It’s a sin, just like any sexual act outside of marriage.” This is to speak of “the cause” of sin, but we know very well that Catholic morality not only considers the cause, but also evaluates freedom and intention; and this for every form of sin,” he said.
About 67 countries or jurisdictions around the world criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity, 11 of which can or will carry 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 prohibits same-sex marriage because the sacrament of marriage is a lifelong bond between a man and a woman. It reserves sexual intercourse for married couples and prohibits artificial contraception.
In his decade-long pontificate, Francis has upheld that teaching but made reaching out to LGBTQ people a priority. He has emphasized a more compassionate approach to applying the teachings of the Church, to guide rather than condemn people.