Today the Pope stated that he does not judge gays—a statement that will send shockwaves through the church. His comments were short, subtle, but unmistakably direct. “If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized,” he told reporters on his return flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome. “The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.”
The Pope also criticized journalists for reporting on allegations of homosexuality within the Vatican, saying those matters concerned questions of sin, not crimes, like the sexual abuse of children. He said when someone sins and confesses, God both forgives and forgets. “We don’t have the right to not forget,” he said.
The Pope is the voice of God for hundreds of millions of people around the world. His attitude is a marked departure from his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, who signed a document in 2005 stating that gay men could not become priests. Now bishops all over the world are going to wonder what the Pope’s statement means for them in their own churches.
The most crucial response to the Pope’s comments may come from countries whose governments and cultures are far less open to gays and lesbians than the United States and Europe. Countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, gay activity can be a crime, and violence against gays and lesbians is common. But the country is also nearly 50% Catholic, and if the Catholic Church adopted an attitude like Pope Francis is modeling, the climate toward the gay community could dramatically change.
The response in the United States will also be significant. When the Pope speaks and takes a position on an issue, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops is not going to directly contradict him. Now visible Cardinals across the country will have to consider what steps they will take to not judge or marginalize their gay brothers and sisters. For example, a gay Catholic couple in Oceanside, NY, has been petitioning Cardinal Dolan to break bread with them since Easter. Dolan has not responded to the request, arguing that the couple lives outside his community, and that they want to foster debate. Now the Pope is setting a moral example that indicates he himself would probably dine with them, and that puts Dolan in a tight position.
As the Pope opened up about gays, he reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s position that women cannot become priests. “On the ordination of women, the church has spoken and said no,” he said. “John Paul II, in a definitive formulation, said that door is closed.” But he also argued that the Catholic church has an underdeveloped theology of women, and he seemed to suggest that the church needs to deepen its understanding of women and their roles in society. He reminded listeners that he holds women in the highest regard: “The Madonna is more important than the apostles, and the church herself is feminine, the spouse of Christ and a mother.”