ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis on Sunday doubled down on his assertion that homosexuality should not be criminalized, saying on the papal plane returning from South Sudan, a country that penalizes homosexual acts, that “to condemn a person like this is a sin.”
But Francis, 86, also turned his attention back toward Rome, lacing into “unethical” conservative critics who he said had “instrumentalized” the death of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and then told lies to promote their own ideological and partisan interests.
Francis made the comments in a remarkable joint in-flight news conference with the head of the Anglican Communion and Scotland’s top Presbyterian minister after spending six days in Africa, first in the Democratic Republic of Congo and then in South Sudan. During the trip, he used his global clout and moral authority to draw attention to and foster peace in the plundered and war-torn countries.
He also reiterated his condemnation of great powers exploiting Africa. The continent’s booming population and vibrant Roman Catholic Church make it critical to the faith’s future, as well as to Francis’ legacy as a pope trying to make the church more global and focused on the needs of its poor, hungry and downtrodden.
But Africa is also vehemently opposed to the more progressive aspects of Francis’ pontificate, especially an increased inclusion of gay people.
That tension is not unique to the Roman Catholic Church. While the Church of Scotland allows same-sex marriages, and its Presbyterian leader, the Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields, said on the flight that Jesus never turned anyone away, the Anglican Church is struggling, like the Vatican, to navigate a tightrope. It has a conflict between its more liberal Western churches that are happy to bless same-sex civil marriages, and that want to allow such marriages in churches, and its conservative African bishops who consider recognizing gay marriage a red line that must not be crossed.
And so it was fitting that Francis was joined on the flight back to Rome by the Most Rev. Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury and the symbolic head of the global Anglican Communion, who acknowledged that the question of homosexuality — and the degree to which it is accepted and legitimized — had roiled his own church.
Archbishop Welby said on the plane that his church had issued multiple declarations against the criminalization of homosexuality, “but it has not really changed many people’s mind.”
That was apparent for both faiths during the pope’s six days in Africa, where the mere mention of gay people prompted immediate condemnation.
“For me, it’s like a witch,” said Phaneul Ladu, 37, a Catholic who joined a crowd of more than 70,000 faithful for Francis’ final event of the trip: an open-air Mass on Sunday morning in Juba, South Sudan’s capital.
“If you do a crime, you should be penalized,” Mr. Ladu said, but he added that it was not worth talking about whether or not homosexuality should be criminalized, “because it doesn’t exist.”
Abraham Duot, the Anglican bishop from Jonglei State, struck a similar note as he walked toward the stage and in front of the grandstand where the country’s political leaders, including South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, surveyed the crowd.
“South Sudan is different because of the culture,” said Archbishop Duot, who also said that he did not believe that the country criminalized homosexuality or that it was “in our Constitution.”
“It is better for you to get two wives than to become a gay or become a lesbian,” he said.
On Friday evening at the presidential palace, where Francis and Mr. Kiir met to discuss steps toward peace, the archbishop of Juba, Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla, argued that, while he believed in change, with all of the calamities facing the country — and Africa as a whole — the issue of homosexuality was not a priority.
“Change could be adopted in different stages. To some people, it’s not really necessary to make changes in that direction,” he said, adding that he himself had never seen anyone imprisoned “because of his being gay.” He said that the criminalization issue was entirely absent from public and private debate in South Sudan.
But he was skeptical of the West’s inflicting its views of sexuality on African cultures. “I believe that these situations cannot be equalized,” Archbishop Ameyu said. “It should be treated from country to country.” He added that Francis had made clear that it was most important to respect human dignity.
Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, the former primate of the South Sudanese Episcopal Church, who took his seat of honor at the Presidential Palace, took a harder line when asked about whether African churches could shift their position on homosexuality to more closely align with those in Europe.
“We don’t accept that one because it’s not part of our life,” he said, stating, “We are against it” and “we don’t want it” and “the wickedness of a human cannot be considered as something to be discussed.”
Asked specifically about the pope’s call for governments not to criminalize homosexuality, he added, “That is the pope — but I’m telling you it is a sin.”
On the papal plane, a reporter asked Francis what he would say to families in Congo and South Sudan who rejected their gay children because they followed the teachings of their local churches, which held that homosexuality was an unacceptable sin, and what he would say to those priests and bishops.
Francis responded, reminding reporters that he had said in 2013 on a flight back from Brazil, “Who am I to judge” a faithful and gay person, and that in 2018 he had made it clear when returning from Ireland that families should not reject their gay children.
He also cited an interview last month with The Associated Press in which he acknowledged that some Catholic bishops around the world supported laws that criminalize or discriminate against homosexuality. He said at the time that bishops needed to recognize the dignity of every person, but that it would be a process.
On Sunday, Francis repeated that “criminalization of homosexuality is a problem to let pass.” Speaking of countries that do criminalize homosexuality, and especially those that apply the death penalty, he reiterated, “It is not just.”
Archbishop Welby then seized the moment to acknowledge that the issue had split his own church and would be “our main topic of discussion” at the Church of England’s bishops meeting this week.
On the plane, Francis also broached the issue of same-sex couples when he expressed frustration, and even anger, with the way Benedict XVI — who died on Dec. 31 and was a north star to conservatives, including in Africa, for upholding traditional church teaching — had been exploited by some acolytes in death.
Francis recalled that when he publicly recognized civil unions, someone tried to denigrate him to Benedict, who instead conferred with theologians and did nothing.
He said he brought it up to show the goodness of Benedict, who, he said, “I could talk with about anything” and who “was always by my side.” Francis rejected the notion, spread by conservative opponents, most prominently in a new tell-all book by Benedict’s former secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, that Benedict was “embittered” on this and other occasions. “It’s bunk,” Francis said, using an Italianization of a Spanish expression.
“On the contrary,” he said, “I consulted Benedict on several decisions, and he agreed.”
“The death of Benedict, I believe, has been instrumentalized by people who are carrying their own water,” Francis added. “These are people of party politics, not of the church.”
He also repeated his condemnation of a mentality among great powers and financial interests that “Africa is for exploiting.” Vatican officials said on Sunday that China was one of the principal offenders of that mentality in Africa.
Mr. Ladu, one of the faithful who attended the Mass, agreed. “What China is doing is negative for Africa,” he said. “They feel that when a system is weak, they can cheat it.” He recalled how Francis, speaking in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, had declared, “Hands off Africa.”
“I think he meant developed countries,” he said. “But I also think he meant China.”