Pope Francis took one of his strongest positions yet against legislation around the world that criminalizes homosexuality or otherwise discriminates against LGBTQ individuals Tuesday, seemingly indicating that the leadership of the Catholic Church—long divided over the question of its position toward the community—was beginning to take a firmer position of solidarity with the LGBTQ community.

“Being homosexual isn’t a crime,” Francis said during an exclusive interview with the Associated Press published Wednesday.

While Francis still referred to homosexuality in the context of “sin,” the comments were lauded by many who saw the comments as one of the first public steps by a Catholic pope to affirm the religion’s acceptance of members of the LGBTQ community who have long felt maligned by the Catholic tradition.

“Pope Francis’s historic call for the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide is an immense step forward for LGBTQ people, their families and all who love them,” James Martin, a priest and editor of the Jesuit America Magazine wrote in response to the news Wednesday.

“This is the first time that any Pope has made such a clear statement about this issue of life and death,” he added. “In some countries, same-sex relations are still a criminal offense; and in several countries you can be executed for being LGBTQ. As such, Pope Francis 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.”

“Criminalization based on sexual orientation is contrary to international human rights law,” tweeted Victor Madrigal-Borloz, a United Nations independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity. “I welcome this recognition by @Pontifex.”

The timing of the pope’s comments, however, were difficult to ignore.

Francis Benedict
Pope Francis, with Pope Benedict XVI inset. Francis took one of his strongest positions yet against legislation around the world that criminalizes homosexuality or otherwise discriminates against LGBTQ individuals on Tuesday.
Newsweek Photo Illustration/Getty Images

Just days earlier, Francis’ predecessor—the more conservative late Pope Benedict XVI—released a posthumous book of essays through his publisher containing a number of revealing claims about his own philosophy of the church as well as concerns of a proliferation of homosexuality within the ranks of clergy, representing another book in a series of books critical of Pope Francis that were released in the wake of Benedict’s death on December 31.

One recent memoir by Benedict’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, released in January prompted a sit-down between the two men after Ganswein claimed Francis was abandoning old traditions of the church, including with his outreach toward divorced members of the church as well as moving away from the Latin Mass, which has been growing in favor with more conservative sects of the Catholic faith.

The headlines wrote themselves: Were these tell-all books the start of a “civil war” as the Catholic-funded publication Crux posed Tuesday?

Some, particularly in the conservative sect of Catholicism, appeared to believe so.

“We are witnessing a monumental event in the history of the Church, the beginning of an outright civil war in the church,” Pope Head, a conservative Christian columnist, wrote in a viral Twitter thread promoted by prominent figures on the right like internet personality and rock musician Phil Labonte and former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.

“If what is occurring right now in the Vatican occurred 400 years ago, Europe would undoubtably be dragged into outright war. The question at the heart of the conflict, is Francis a legitimate Pope?” Pope Head added.

The debate over Francis’ vision for the church and that of Benedict’s—a much more conservative figure—date back well before either man ascended to lead the Vatican.

In the wake of the second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, a rift began to form between clergy who believed the church should adhere to a more rigorous standard of traditional Catholic values and others who believed the church should become more progressive and reflective of an increasingly secular world around it.

Beginning in 2021, Francis began to meet with church communities all over the world in an effort to lobby for the inclusion of marginalized groups within the church, including the poor, migrants, LGBTQ people and women, a move some felt only served to abandon the traditions that had helped define the faith for centuries.

Recently, he has increased his public outreach to the LGBTQ community, including remarks last year asking parents not to “condemn” their homosexual children and firing officials behind documents barring blessings for LGBTQ parishoners.

Those moves, however, have only helped to spur increasingly public opposition from some members of the clergy in recent years.

“With open dialogue can come some confusion around the principles of what it means to accompany someone, or what it means to have an attitude of mercy,” Patrick T. Brown, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, told Newsweek. “It gets applied in different ways in different dioceses. Bishops are going to disagree on this in different ways. It’s a live issue, for sure.”

“He’s right that in the church’s eyes, homosexual acts are considered a sin, but should not be a crime,” he added. “I think that that is firmly within the Catholic tradition. It’s just a matter of how it gets applied.

“I think Francis has a more collegial style and wants to have some of these debates out in the open, and rather than behind closed doors, and I think that has led to some of the frank disagreements we’ve seen between some bishops in the U.S.”

There have been tangible examples, ranging from local school districts all the way up to the Vatican itself.

A 17-page document obtained by The Denver Post last fall showed the Archdiocese of Denver advising administrators at local Catholic schools in 2019 to not enroll or re-enroll transgender students, calling their gender orientation “incompatible with Christian anthropology” and potentially leading to “profound confusion.”

Earlier this month, a Maryland priest allegedly denied communion to a lesbian parishioner at her mother’s funeral at the church, allegedly telling her, “I cannot give you communion because you live with a woman and that is a sin according to the church,” according to a statement by The National Religious Leadership Roundtable last week. The priest also allegedly left the altar while the woman delivered her mother’s eulogy.

Meanwhile in Rome, Pope Francis is currently under fire for considering a figure to lead a post within the church tasked with defending Roman Catholic doctrine who recently supported resolutions favoring the ordination of women as well as the “moral condonement of sexual relations between members of the same sex,” according to a report by the National Catholic Register earlier this week.

The debates within the church, some argue, appear to miss the larger picture: that the fastest growing religious group in the nation, according to Pew, is comprised of people with no affiliation whatsoever, and that Catholics focusing on internal debates miss the bigger issue that the church is largely seen as irrelevant by young adults, one expert on Catholicism told Newsweek.

Brown, however, noted that there might be some desire for the church to resemble the values of groups that are actually growing within the faith—Hispanics, for example—that are beginning to replace the older generations that once dominated the faith in the U.S.

“That does change the church in a number of different directions,” he said.

“I do think that some of the debates that consumed the church over the years—politicians receiving Communion if they support abortion—are, in some respects, on the way out in future years. It’s going to be a smaller church, where the people who inherit it see it as something that’s part of their identity,” Brown added.