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Pope Francis is the first pope to back the repeal of laws criminalizing homosexuality

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Pope Francis has said the Catholic Church must work to put an end to laws that criminalize homosexuality. Those laws are common in some parts of the world and sometimes impose the death penalty. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, he's the first pope to back such a repeal.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In a wide-ranging interview with the Associated Press, Pope Francis quoted from the catechism of the Catholic Church, saying gay people must be welcomed and respected and should not be marginalized or discriminated against. He said there must be a distinction between a crime and a sin. Being homosexual is not a crime, but it is a sin, Francis said, adding, but first, let's distinguish between a sin and a crime. As an example, he said, it's also a sin to lack charity with one another.

The pope acknowledged that Catholic bishops in some parts of the world support laws that criminalize or discriminate against homosexuality. He told the interviewer the church should work to put an end to anti-LGBTQ legislation, stressing it must do this. A few months after his 2013 election as pope, Francis uttered a phrase that would define his papacy as inclusive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?

POGGIOLI: And in the last 10 years, he has ministered publicly to the gay and transgender communities. But Catholic Church teaching holds that homosexual activity is, quote, "intrinsically disordered." And Francis has been criticized by LGBTQ activists for the Vatican's 2021 decree that the church cannot bless same-sex unions because it said, God cannot bless sin.

Following the interview, Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which promotes the rights of the Catholic LGBTQ community, rejoiced. In a statement, he said, the pope's words highlight the Catholic value of protecting human dignity, which too many church leaders have refused to apply to the oppressive, social situations of LGBTQ+ people around the world, including in the U.S. Asked about the recent wave of criticism against him from conservative cardinals and bishops following the death of former Pope Benedict XVI, Francis acknowledged the knives are out but appeared unruffled. He said, it's unpleasant but better than keeping it under wraps. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.