JNN 04 Aug 2013 ROME— The New Chosen Pope Francis said he wouldn’t judge gay priests, he opened the door to a new era of reconciliation within the Roman Catholic Church, which has struggled for decades to confront the presence of homosexuality in its ministry.
The pontiff was traveling aboard a turbulent overnight flight to Rome from his first overseas trip—a journey marked by his plain-spoken appeals to Catholics to reground the church in grass-roots ministry—when he broached the delicate issue of how the Catholic hierarchy should respond to clerics who are gay, though not sexually active. In doing so, he departed from the posture that has long shaped papal thinking on gay priests.
“Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” the pontiff told a news conference in response to a question. “You can’t marginalize these people.”
Pope Francis reaffirmed church teaching by referring to homosexual acts as a sin. But he wielded his formidable bully pulpit to shift the tone of how the church regards homosexual orientation at its highest ranks.
The pope returned to the Vatican from a weeklong visit to Brazil, where he was given a rock-star reception as an estimated three million people flocked to a Sunday Mass on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach.
Analysts said that show of support is likely to strengthen his hand as he confronts myriad challenges, including alleged corruption at the Vatican bank and the sexual-abuse crisis.
The pontiff said women couldn’t be ordained as priests, because the issue had been definitively settled by Pope John Paul II. However, he said he wanted to develop a “theology of the woman,” in order to expand and deepen their involvement in the life of the church.
Never before had a pope spoken out in defense of gay priests in the Catholic ministry, said Vatican analysts, and past popes have traditionally treated homosexuality as an obstacle to priestly celibacy. In 1986, the Vatican defined homosexuality as an “objective disorder,” and in 2005 Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, formally barred men deemed to have “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from entering the priesthood.
Pope Francis “is showing a deep respect for the human condition as it is, instead of approaching things in a doctrinal way,” said Alberto Melloni, a church historian.
“This isn’t a change in the church’s teaching,” said Rev. James Bretzke, a theology professor at Boston College. “What’s important is the change in style and emphasis.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York echoed the pope on Monday, saying a priest’s homosexuality “wouldn’t matter to me as long as one is leading a virtuous and chaste life.” But, he added, “My worry is that we’re buying into the vocabulary that one’s person is one’s sexual identity and I don’t buy that and neither does the church.”
Stephen White, a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said the pope “cut through a great deal of distrust between the church and people of same-sex attraction,” adding that he doesn’t anticipate that the pontiff’s comments will cause a rift within the church.
The pope’s remarks drew cautious praise from gay-rights groups, who welcomed his change in tone.
“This could be the opening of a door or a window,” Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Boston-based DignityUSA, an organization of gay and transsexual Catholics.
Ross Murray, director of news and faith initiatives at GLAAD, an advocacy organization, said while the pope’s words are helpful, he remained skeptical of what will happen in practice.
Pope Francis met with reporters on the plane for 80 minutes, and he mused at length on one scandal that erupted on his predecessor’s watch: a secret Vatican report leaked to the Italian media purporting that homosexual Vatican clerics had formed a “gay lobby” that was secretly pulling the strings inside the Holy See.
The Argentine pontiff said he had discussed the findings of the internal Vatican report with Pope Benedict, who resigned in early February. The German pope emeritus, Pope Francis said, had given him documentation and testimony from the internal report prepared by three cardinals before he stepped down.
The pope carefully drew a distinction between the possibility of pressure groups existing inside the Vatican—which he defined as a “problem”—and the potential presence of gay priests within Vatican ranks.
“You have to distinguish between the fact of a person being gay, and the fact of a lobby,” the pope said. “The problem isn’t having this orientation. The problem is making a lobby.”
The comments cut to the core of one of the most challenging issues facing the Catholic priesthood. Data measuring the prevalence of homosexuality in the priesthood is limited. A poll of Roman Catholic priests across the U.S. the Los Angeles Times conducted in 2002 found that 15% of priests described themselves as homosexual or leaning toward homosexuality.
Bishops who run local dioceses have long been divided over whether to accept gay priests who are chaste. While some bishops are tolerant of homosexuality, the Vatican’s ban on gay men entering the priesthood has forced many clerics to keep their sexuality hidden from superiors. For bishops, the issue boils down to if “you got a priest you know is gay but isn’t active is that a problem for you or not?” said John L. Allen of the National Catholic Reporter. “For this pope the answer is ‘no.’ ”
In Africa, one of Catholicism’s fastest-growing regions, church officials expressed doubts that openly gay priests would be welcomed by their flocks. “Here the issue is a taboo,” said Ben Assorow, director of communications for the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar.
The pope’s remarks on homosexuality were prompted by a reporter who asked the pontiff to comment on a report in an Italian magazine alleging Battista Ricca, a Vatican monsignor promoted by Pope Francis, engaged in gay sexual relationships years ago when he was posted overseas at a Vatican embassy in Latin America. The monsignor, who has never publicly commented, remains in good standing with the pope, said a senior Vatican official.
In one of his first moves as pope, the pontiff appointed Msgr. Ricca as interim overseer of the Vatican’s bank while a special commission weighs its future. For years, the bank has faced allegations from Italian prosecutors and regulators that its internal controls weren’t strong enough to guard against money laundering. On Sunday, Pope Francis suggested he was keeping all options on the table, from transforming the bank into a charitable fund to shutting it down entirely.
“I don’t know how this story is going to end,” the pope said.
Msgr. Ricca is tasked with acting as Pope Francis’ eyes and ears at the Vatican’s bank while the commission forges ahead. The pope said he ordered a preliminary investigation of the monsignor after rumors began to swirl about the cleric’s purported sex life. The inquiry “found nothing,” the pope said, without elaborating on the investigation or its findings.
The pope, who said he was too tired to take questions on his way to Brazil, appeared indefatigable during the trip home. He dispensed reading tips—advising reporters to “read and reread” Fyodor Dostoyevsky—and discussed his plans to visit Jerusalem on his next overseas trip.
Through it all, he maintained a Zen-like state of calm, even as the plane hit turbulence and the seat-belt lights flashed.