LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Pope Francis says homosexuality is not a crime. He made the statement in an interview with the Associated Press, adding that legislation that criminalizes same-sex relationships is, quote, "unjust." And he told the AP in these words, we are all children of God. And God loves us as we are, as he asked Catholic bishops to welcome LGBTQ people into the church. Joining us on Skype now to discuss is Father James Martin. He's a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America Magazine. His LGBT ministry is the subject of his book, "Building A Bridge." Good morning.
JAMES MARTIN: Good morning.
FADEL: So I'd love to just hear what you were thinking when you heard these remarks from the pope.
MARTIN: Well, I was delighted. It's something that many people have been encouraging him to say and encouraging the Vatican to say. And I think it'll certainly save lives. I think, in something like 67 countries, it's still a criminal offense - that is same-sex relations. And in 10 countries, it's a capital offense that can be punishable by death. And so I think his words will save lives.
FADEL: Now, the pope, though, isn't changing church policy here, right? I mean, he's still calling homosexuality a sin. So how does he and the Catholic Church distinguish between sin and public policy or laws?
MARTIN: Well, I think, first of all, it's important to say that when he was saying being homosexual is a sin, he was kind of repeating what others might say in Catholic teaching. Simply being a homosexual is not a sin. As he said, we're all children of God. He's not changed any church doctrine. And I think one of the wonderful things about this statement is that it doesn't challenge any church teaching. But it really affirms church teaching that we should treat LGBTQ people with respect, compassion and sensitivity. And, frankly, it's a very pro-life move because it is defending the lives of, you know, persecuted LGBTQ people worldwide.
FADEL: Now, the pope attributed - he said that the church needs to work to end these types of laws. And he attributed the support of bishops to these laws to the cultural background. They need to go through what he called a process of conversion. How does that practically work when this is so deeply rooted in culture and history?
MARTIN: Well, that's a huge call. For example, the bishops of Ghana have actually supported laws that criminalize homosexuality. And really, you know, what might seem bland to us in the West, as you point out, in places like sub-Saharan Africa or Eastern Europe are really going to be challenging. So I think the bishops in these countries are going to have to do some soul-searching as a result of this interview today.
FADEL: Now, you mentioned Ghana. But more than a dozen states in the U.S. still have anti-sodomy laws on the books. There are - and you mentioned these dozens of countries where laws may carry the death penalty. So how realistic is it that the pope's remarks influence these large Catholic populations and change policy?
MARTIN: Well, I think it's going to change - I would hope it would change what some people think, you know, on the ground, in the pews. But really, when it comes to decision-makers and people who set policy for the Catholic Church - that is the bishops and bishops conferences - they're going to have to pay attention to this. It's going to be much harder for them, for example, to side with these repressive laws. He could not have been any clearer in his statement today to AP.
FADEL: Does this bring the church any closer to welcoming and acknowledging members of the LGBTQ community as practicing Catholic who can receive sacraments, like marriage?
MARTIN: Well, I don't - he's not talking about marriage here. But I think it does make people feel more welcome. You know, Pope Francis, you know, often teaches with words, as he does today, but also in gestures, you know, meeting LGBTQ people. On the website Outreach, we noted that he meets with transgender people almost monthly. And so these things do help people feel more welcome in, really, what is, after all, their church, too.
FADEL: Now, the timing of these statements - does Pope Francis feel any freer to move in a different direction since the death of Pope Benedict, who was regarded as a much more - as much more conservative?
MARTIN: That's a great question. I'm not sure about that. I think he's always been his own person. I think it's probably even more significant the timing comes between - you know, before his trip to South Sudan, you know? And as you know, in many parts of Africa, these laws are still there. So I'm not sure about the timing. And I'm really not sure about whether or not he feels any freer after Pope Benedict's death.
FADEL: Now, you mentioned - we talked about the church's stance. Do you think this is the start of more to come on policy when it comes to LGBTQ people?
MARTIN: Well, I hope so. There are certain things that the Vatican can do without changing any church teaching. This is one of them that many advocates have been pointing to. The other one would be, for example, opposing conversion therapy and then finally coming out even - more strongly against violence against LGBTQ people.
FADEL: Father James Martin, editor at large of the Jesuit magazine America. Thank you so much for your time.
MARTIN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.