WASHINGTON – In another act of the kind of humble outreach that has marked the early months of his papacy, Pope Francis called on Monday for the integration of gays into society, remarking that even as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, he has no right to “judge” gay people.
“If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized,” Francis said during his first news conference, a wide-ranging and candid back-and-forth that took place aboard his flight back to Rome from World Youth Day in Brazil.
The comments, which were greeted with particular enthusiasm by gay and liberal Catholics, were in response to journalists’ questions about allegations of corruption within a “gay lobby” of priests at the Vatican.
“When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby,” Francis said, according to a transcript of the remarks published by the National Catholic Reporter. He added that “the tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem . . . they’re our brothers.”
While many commentators pointed out that nothing that Francis said changed church teaching on homosexuality, many also saw a consequential shift in tone that focused on God’s mercy for sinners, rather than the sin.
The news conference marked the first time that Francis had addressed controversial social issues such as homosexuality during his papacy. Although he had called on Catholics to show “great respect for [gay] people,” Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’ predecessor, also oversaw the publication of a church document that called homosexual inclinations “disordered” and called for men with “deep-seated” gay tendencies to be barred from the priesthood.
Although Francis also commented on the role of women in the church, the Vatican Bank and numerous other topics both high-profile and more pedestrian during the news conference, his remarks on homosexuality generally and gay priests in particular set off a stream of reaction by Catholics.
“Pope Francis’s brief comment on gays reveals great mercy,” said the Rev. James Martin, an influential Catholic commentator. “That mercy, of course, comes from Jesus Christ. And we can never have enough of it. The pope’s remarks also are in line with the catechism, which teaches that gays should be treated with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity.’ “
Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at Catholic University who has written on the papacy, said that “people are right to perceive a change in tone and that that tone is a pastoral tone on the question of homosexual inclinations.
“Many people recognize that Pope Benedict was a professor pope, that he was teaching theology, and that Pope Francis is emphasizing the pastoral office more strongly than Benedict did.”
Pecknold noted that during the news conference, Francis said he did not mention abortion or gay marriage before his trip to Brazil because he wanted to sound “positive.”
Rather than “beginning the conversation with what the church teaches about what one shouldn’t do,” Pecknold said, Francis “wants to begin the conversation about what it means to enter into the mercy of God.”
Michael Sean Winters, an author who has written for the National Catholic Reporter, saw Francis’ take on gays in the church as in line with his approachable, grace-first style. “You’re seeing someone who leads with God’s mercy.”
Winters added: “He’s not saying, ‘Look, there is no sin,’ although he does tend to talk of the sins of savage capitalism more than he does of secularizing humanists. He is leading with mercy. He never wags his finger.”
Eve Tushnet, currently working on a book about vocations for gay Catholics, is a gay convert to Catholicism who accepts the church’s teaching that sexual activity is reserved for married men and women. But Tushnet also thinks the church could do a lot more to welcome gay people into its flock.
“The main thing that I would love to hear from the pope is, ‘God is calling you,’ ” Tushnet said. “God is calling gay people to love, to minister to others, to serve. I personally would like to see that extended to the priesthood . . . but certainly anything that comes from the pope that says that, ‘God has a specific call for you,’ I think that would be huge. I think that’s the hunger is that gay people have been told what they’re not allowed to do out of love but they haven’t been told what they should do out of love.”
Francis DeBernardo, who heads New Ways Ministries, which works with gay Catholics and their families, said that although he knows Pope Francis’ comments don’t change church teaching, “I think he’s paving the way for future changes. Having this more positive discourse about sexuality and about LGBT people is going to help further down the road, because it’s going to be setting up an approach to sexuality and to LGBT people that’s more positive.”
DeBernardo acknowledged that many people will say Francis’ approach is not inclusive enough, but he added: “I think change in the church is evolutionary and not revolutionary. If we want to see real change, we have to take it step by step. We’ve been waiting for this first step for a long time. No one in the papacy has taken this kind of step, ever.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, an activist organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics, saw in the pope’s comments the potential for tremendous impact.
“Just imagine if you’re somebody trying to come to terms with your identity and hearing the pope acknowledge that you can be a person of faith and goodwill, and still be gay or lesbian, and how that contrasts with somebody saying that your love for another person of the same sex is going to bring down society,” she said. “There’s such an empowerment and sense of acceptance.
“I don’t think anybody expected any kind of overnight change,” Duddy-Burke added. “What we find hopeful in this is that there may be the door opening a little bit, and I think the next step would need to be an indication that there’s a willingness to listen to the stories and the experiences of LGBT people and of our families, and hear of our challenges of staying in the church and also what gifts we have to offer.”
Pecknold said Francis is acting as an “agent of renewal,” reflected not only in his remarks aboard the plane, but in his stance of humility and championing of the poor and disenfranchised.
“I think the world likes a good comeback story,” Pecknold said. “There’s a sense in which the Catholic Church has been riled by scandal in the third quarter of the 20th century, and it’s time to come back from this.
“I think there’s a palpable sense that people want to see the church succeed. . . . I think there is this palpable sense that Pope Francis might be that agent of renewal who enables people to say, ‘It’s cool to be Catholic.’ “
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