Pope Francis’s call for decriminalisation of homosexuality welcomed

David Norris, Mary McAleese and Ursula Halligan among those hailing change of tone from Vatican

Pope Francis’s description of laws criminalising homosexuality as “unjust” has been warmly welcomed by advocates for the gay community in Ireland, including Senator David Norris, who pioneered the change of such laws in Ireland.

In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church should work to put an end to such laws. “It must do this. It must do this,” he said, and quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church as saying gay people must be welcomed and respected, and should not be marginalised or discriminated against.

“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,” he said. The pope called, in particular, on Catholic bishops who support such anti-gay laws to welcome LGBTQ people into the church.

“Being homosexual isn’t a crime,” he said. Pope Francis acknowledged that Catholic bishops in some parts of the world supported laws criminalising homosexuality or discriminated against LGBTQ people. Such bishops, in particular, need to undergo a process of change to recognise the dignity of everyone, he added. “These bishops have to have a process of conversion,” he said, adding that they should apply “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us”.


He also distinguished between crime and sin with regard to homosexuality. “It’s not a crime. Yes, but it’s a sin. Fine, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime. It’s also a sin to lack charity with one another,” he added.

Defining the sinfulness of homosexuality in a 1986 document, Pope Benedict, who died on December 31st, described it as “intrinsically disordered” with “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder”.

Senator Norris felt what Pope Francis had to say this week on homosexuality was “a very civilised approach to what is a complex situation”.

It is “significant” that what Pope Francis said “came in the wake of the death of Benedict. Francis probably felt constrained by that presence.” As for Francis himself, the Senator said: “He is a good man. I have always liked him.”

In April 1983, rejecting Mr Norris’s challenge to Ireland’s criminal laws on homosexuality, then chief justice Tom O’Higgins said that “from the earliest days, organised religion regarded homosexual conduct ... with a deep revulsion as being contrary to the order of nature, a perversion of the biological functions of the sexual organs and an affront both to society and to God.”

Justice O’Higgins cited the Preamble to the Constitution as proof that, in adopting that document, the Irish people “were proclaiming a deep religious conviction and faith.

Reflecting on that judgment now, Mr Norris said: “I knew it would come right eventually.” As for his long campaign on the issue, he said, “I enjoyed it. It was rather fun.”

In 1993, then minister for justice Máire Geoghegan Quinn decriminalised homosexuality in Ireland.

Reflecting on these latest comments from Pope Francis, former president Mary McAleese said they represented “a very welcome step as part of the dismantling of the architecture of homophobia in which the church has been deeply implicated for centuries”.

For gay people, it is “a profoundly welcome first step”, she said.

Most papal pronouncements were to the world, she said, but this was different. “He is saying to the bishops ‘you need to change your minds, you need conversion’.” It was also significant, Mrs McAleese said, that, while Pope Francis said homosexuality was a sin, he indicated “homophobia is also sinful, as is mean behaviour”.

She felt that Francis may have been influenced in what he said this week by findings in the international synodal process taking place within the church where many Catholics, including in Ireland, have asked Rome to address church teaching on sex and sexuality as well as its treatment of LGBTQ people.

Broadcaster Ursula Halligan, of the We Are Church Ireland group, was enthusiastic about the words of Pope Francis. “It should have happened a long, long time ago and spared suffering and saved lives,” she said. “To love should never be a crime.”

She feels that the church “urgently needs to construct a review of its understanding of human sexuality” that should “draw on the lived experience of LGBTQ lives. We are here. We exist.”

Fr Tony Flannery, who was suspended from public ministry by the Vatican 11 years ago for saying much of what Pope Francis has been saying generally, including on homosexuality, described this week’s comments as “a serious statement coming from a pope”.

He was “delighted” by it, and felt it was “enormously significant”. He too felt that, with the death of Benedict last month, “Pope Francis probably feels more free to speak like this”.

According to the Human Dignity Trust group, 67 countries or jurisdictions worldwide criminalise homosexual activity while in 11 countries or jurisdictions people can be executed for it.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times