Pope Francis waves at the end of a mass in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican on October 13, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

His Holiness
The Pope
The Apostolic Palace

Your Holiness:

We write to follow up on our earlier correspondence, dated October 16, 2013, and annexed to this letter.

In the past year you have made clear that you envisage a Church of and for the poor. Your actions bring to mind the words of Gaudium et Spes: “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.”

I write concerning the grief and anguish of one such afflicted group of people: persecuted sexual and gender minorities. Today I write in my capacity as the Director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch is an organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of all people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, uphold political freedom, and protect people from inhumane conduct. We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law.

The Catholic Church and Human Rights Watch approach the rights of sexual and gender minorities from different perspectives, but we have common ground to build on. While we understand that the Church has a right to advance its doctrines on sexuality in the public sphere, we ask you to join us in ensuring that no one uses these views to condone violent or degrading abuse of sexual and gender minorities. The Church, we suggest, could reaffirm its belief in the basic humanity of all people by speaking out with a strong voice against abuse and mistreatment wherever it occurs.

The Holy See has already taken a stance in opposing violence, unjust discrimination, and criminal penalties against sexual and gender minorities. In its teachings, as well as in several public statements at the United Nations General Assembly, the Church has voiced the need to protect everyone’s human dignity. Based on prior Church teachings and statements, this respect for human dignity requires concrete actions to create an environment in which people in sexual and gender minorities can live peacefully as full members of society.

In your own ministry, you have called for a Catholic position that respects the civil rights of people in sexual and gender minorities, while upholding the Church’s moral teaching on sexual ethics. We support your recent statements concerning the need to avoid religious harassment and to address the needs of those who are marginalized.  

Unfortunately, many Catholic communities have not adopted this approach.

We are concerned that the Holy See’s message is not always consistently conveyed to local religious communities around the world. In recent years, both religious and lay Catholics, through their actions and words, have promoted policies and practices so dehumanizing that they contribute to a climate in which violence against people in sexual and gender minorities occurs with impunity.

Earlier this year, for example, numerous Catholic bishops in Uganda supported one of the most draconian laws for the persecution of gay and lesbian people, which has already led to widespread suffering, including violence and evictions. During their Easter homilies, several Catholic bishops publicly praised the new law. The Catholic hierarchy of Nigeria has supported similar legislation. In a letter sent to President Goodluck Jonathan on behalf of the Nigerian Catholic Church, Nigerian clergy praised the “courageous and wise” legislation, which imposes severe criminal penalties on public displays of affection between two men or two women.

Some Church leaders have rejected these so-called anti-gay laws with messages of peace and tolerance, and we applaud these statements. Bishops from South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, and Ghana have called on Catholics to stand with the powerless, and oppose the persecution of sexual and gender minorities across Africa. Cardinal Peter Turkson, for instance, has publicly stated that “homosexuals are not criminals” and should not be sentenced to life in prison. In India, Cardinal Oswald Gracias spoke out against the recent decision of the Supreme Court of India to uphold local sodomy laws, stating that, “[t]he Catholic Church does not want homosexuals treated as criminals.” Sadly, these voices are often drowned out.

Because we share a commitment to end all violence, discrimination, and unjust criminal penalties, we respectfully call on you to ensure that the Church speaks with one voice on these matters. Specifically, we ask you to:

  • Clearly and publicly condemn violence against people in sexual and gender minorities, whether by the state or private actors;
  • Call for the decriminalization of consensual, sexual relationships, and support the repeal of other unjust criminal penalties that discriminate against people in sexual and gender minorities;
  • Help moderate the public tone of local Church leaders on sexuality; and
  • Call for greater legal protections for people in sexual and gender minorities.

In the annexed letter, we describe further the abuses we have documented against people in sexual and gender minorities, and cite cases in which Catholic leaders have endorsed the rights of LGBT people. We ask you to strongly reiterate a public message of tolerance.

We fear that, without a clear message from you and the Holy See on these questions, some members of the Church will continue to use Catholic teachings to legitimatize attacks on people who are vulnerable because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We have confidence that your leadership could prevent the unnecessary and ongoing suffering of millions of marginalized and persecuted people around the world.

We hope you will share and discuss our letter during the upcoming synod in Rome. If needed, it would be our pleasure to come to Rome and address the content further.

Yours sincerely,

Graeme Reid

LGBT rights director