Pope Francis Flies Into African Storm Over His Call to Decriminalize Homosexual Relations

Comments the Holy Father made in a recent interview could threaten to overtake his mission of peace.

South-Sudanese women hold a printed fabric showing a portrait of Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (l), Rev. Iain Greenshields of the (Protestant) Church of Scotland (r) and Pope Francis as preparations continue ahead of their Feb. 3-5 visit to South Sudan.
South-Sudanese women hold a printed fabric showing a portrait of Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (l), Rev. Iain Greenshields of the (Protestant) Church of Scotland (r) and Pope Francis as preparations continue ahead of their Feb. 3-5 visit to South Sudan. (photo: Simon Maina / AFP via Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ call on all nations to decriminalize homosexuality is meeting some strong resistance, not least in South Sudan, where the Holy Father will visit this weekend. 

South Sudan Minister of Information, Communication and Postal Service Michael Lueth said on Friday that homosexual relations and same-sex marriage are punishable by law in his country.

Speaking to reporters shortly after a cabinet meeting chaired by South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, Lueth said, “If he [Pope Francis] is coming here and he tells us that marriage of the same sex, homosexuality, is legal, we will say No.”

“God was not mistaken,” Lueth continued. “He created man and woman, and he told them to marry one another and go and fill the world. Do same-sex partners give birth? 

“Our constitution is very clear and says marriage is between the opposite sex and any same-sex marriage is a crime, is a constitutional crime,” said Lueth in remarks reported by South Sudanese broadcaster Radio Tamazuj.  

The minister said the Pope was coming to South Sudan not for this purpose but to preach peace, ask the people to forgive one another and live in peace and harmony so that the country moves forward.

Pope Francis will visit Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Feb. 3-5 after spending three days in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

He has said his visit is a “pilgrimage of peace” after both countries have been ravaged by decades of war, and he will be accompanied to South Sudan by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Rev. Iain Greenshields.

But the issue of decriminalizing homosexuality threatens to dominate the visit after the Pope said in an interview with the Associated Press last week that “being homosexual is not a crime.” The issue has also been a focal point recently in Welby’s Church of England, which is currently wrestling with whether to allow same-sex “marriages” in their churches after recently approving same-sex blessings. 

In his AP interview, the Pope said homosexuality is “not a crime. Yes, but it’s a sin. Fine, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime.” He later clarified that he meant a homosexual act is a sin, “as is any sexual act outside of marriage,” but reiterated that “whoever wants to criminalize homosexuality” is “wrong.” 

He also said he believed that “more than 50 countries have legal condemnation” and that “10 or so have the death penalty.” They don’t name it directly, he observed, “but say ‘those who have unnatural attitudes,’ that is they try to say it in a hidden way.” 

He said he thought such an approach was “unfair” and added that he didn’t think “anyone should be discriminated against,” whether they be homosexuals or even “the biggest murderer.” Being homosexual “is not a crime; it is a human condition,” he said. 

Pope Francis is the first pontiff to make such an explicit appeal. Until then, such statements had been made by Vatican officials including in 2008 during Benedict XVI’s pontificate when the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations urged states “to do away with criminal penalties” against homosexual persons.

The Pope’s words appear to run contrary to these cultural sensitivities and to contradict his occasional strong condemnations of what he has called “ideological colonization” whereby Western nations impose secular values such as “gay rights” and abortion on developing nations by tying them to foreign aid. 

He has often defined ideological colonization as trying to eliminate the natural differences between people, which ends up attacking Creation. In an address to the United Nations in 2015, he excoriated such attempts to impose “anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.”

But homosexuality remains a taboo and stigmatized in many parts of Africa and the Middle East. 

According to the statistics web portal Statista, as of 2020, homosexual relations were criminalized in 71 countries, most of them in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

The Catholic Church in many of these countries also backs criminalization, or at least cultural opposition to same-sex relations. In June 2020, the bishops of Gabon strongly protested a decision by the nation’s lawmakers to decriminalize homosexual relations, saying the vote represents “a danger for our children and for homosexuals themselves.”

“This vote, in contradiction with the majority of Gabonese people, could not only lead fragile consciences to assume deviant behavior; it could also expose homosexuals to hostile reactions and discrimination,” the bishops said. 

In 2021, the Catholic bishops of Ghana issued a statement strongly opposing “this abominable practice” and supporting others who also protest against it. They also cautioned against “harassment just because they are homosexuals” and called for their human dignity to be respected.