The institutional Catholic church isn’t known for being especially inclusive of gays and lesbians, but Pope Francis hinted Monday that the world’s largest Christian denomination could soon become a more welcoming place for gay men who wish to become priests.
Speaking at an impromptu press conference during his return flight from a trip to Brazil, Pope Francis responded to a question about gay Catholic priests with an unexpectedly inclusive and conciliatory remark. “Who am I to judge [homosexual priests] if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?” he said, adding, “They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.”
Granted, the pontiff’s comments, which are sure to attract attention, technically don’t diverge sharply from existing Catholic teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church already calls on the faithful to avoid judging homosexuals, saying that people with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies … must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
Furthermore, while Francis was dismissive of rumors of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican, he cautioned against intra-church activism on the part of gay priests, saying, “I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby.”
Still, Francis’ remarks do signal a significant shift in tone within the Vatican, especially when compared to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict, who referred to homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil” while still a bishop, published an encyclical shortly after assuming the papacy in 2005 that recommended banning men from the priesthood who “are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’”
Francis’ recent comments would appear to directly contradict that position.
Pope Francis has framed himself as a more inclusive — or at least more populist — pope since ascending to the Catholic church’s highest position earlier this year. He has received praise from many religious progressives in recent months for a series of actions that reach beyond traditional Catholics, including washing the feet of women as well as Muslims during mass; inviting homeless to dine with him at the vatican; calling on priests to drive more “humble” cars; and for publicly declaring that all people — even atheists — can be redeemed by God.