Pope Francis made waves Monday aboard the papal aircraft when he said of gay priests, “Who am I to judge?”
The remark came during an open, wide-ranging, 80-minute news conference the new leader of the Catholic Church gave reporters at the end of his weeklong visit to Brazil. Pope Francis was responding to a reporter’s question about the “gay lobby” within the Vatican and allegations that a trusted adviser and clergyman engaged in homosexual behavior.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will,” the pope said during the news conference, “who am I to judge?”
The statement was heralded by gay and lesbian advocates as a welcome change in tone for the Roman Catholic Church. It was perhaps the first time a leader of the Catholic Church publicly used the word “gay,” rather than the more formal “homosexual.”
We welcome the change in tone. We welcome the fact that the head of one of the world’s major religions made a gesture of good will toward a class of people whose way of life the church has always considered taboo and sinful. We welcome Pope Francis’ humility and his more welcoming, big-tent stance toward a changed world.
But the reaction to his comments Monday proves that, though it takes courage, it’s not hard to make waves as the head of the Catholic Church. Just eight years ago, after all, Pope Francis’ predecessor called homosexuality “an objective disorder” that represented “a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” In that same Vatican document, Pope Benedict XVI said men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” shouldn’t become priests.
It’s important to recognize that Pope Francis’ comments about gay clergy are not the harbinger of any change in practice or church doctrine toward gay people. And it’s important to note that during the same news conference in which Pope Francis made his noteworthy remarks, he also stuck with church teaching and described homosexual acts as sins (even if, he said, they are sins that God might ultimately forgive and forget).
Pope Francis continues to make waves for gestures and statements no one expects from a pope.
As an Argentine cardinal, he reached out to evangelical leaders — whose churches have grown rapidly in Latin America as more in that region abandon the Catholic Church — and asked them to pray for him.
In one of his early acts as pope, during Holy Week at the end of March, he washed the feet of a non-Catholic Serbian woman, breaking with a tradition in which the pope washes only the feet of men.
During his trip to Brazil, he urged Catholic youths to shake up their dioceses.
“I want a mess,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses. I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures.”
During the same airborne news conference in which he made his remarks about gay clergy, the pope called for a more significant role for women in the church. Again, however, he indicated he wouldn’t challenge church doctrine that bars women from the priesthood.
While the world embraces a seemingly more progressive pontiff, we want to see Pope Francis’ words backed up with action that proves the Catholic Church can adapt to a world that has changed.