LGBT groups Monday saw the pope’s remarks on gay clergy as a significant shift from those held by his predecessors, and perhaps the beginning of a sea change in the Catholic Church.
The “who am I to judge” statement from Pope Francis regarding gay clergy was “an absolute thrill,” to hear, said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, an organization of gay and lesbian Catholics.
“I give credit to Francis for dealing with it in the open,” Duddy-Burke said. “The fact that we’re all talking about it is an exciting thing.”
Activists will look to Pope Francis to follow up his words with actions reaching out to the LGBT community, Duddy-Burke said, but his comments marked a shift in tone from the “hurtful rhetoric” of his predecessors.
While gay rights advocates applauded the pope’s comments, Catholic groups said the views were in line with the Church’s teachings on homosexuality and are not a radical shift in doctrine. The Vatican teaches that gay men and women should be accepted, but that homosexual inclinations constitute an “objective disorder” and indicate a tendency toward “intrinsic moral evil.” Since priests are required to take a vow of celibacy, however, their sexual orientation shouldn’t factor into whether they can be church leaders.
“The church has always made it very clear that homosexuals are welcome,” said Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an interview with msnbc. “The problem is homosexual activity, which the pope can’t condone. Francis is saying that in a nicer way.”
The pope himself affirmed that position during his press conference, making it clear that allegations involving a gay relationship do not constitute a crime, like sexually abusing children, but are still sins, which should be forgiven.
The pontiff spoke on the subject of homosexuality in response to a question from reporters about the so-called “gay lobby,” an alleged group of gay clergymen linked to corruption and blackmail within the Vatican.
“I have yet to find on a Vatican identity card the word ‘gay,’” he said. “They say there are some gay people here. I think that when we encounter a gay person, we must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good. They are bad. If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?”
Pope Francis’ take on gay clergy is all the more extraordinary in light of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI’s stance on homosexuality. In 2005, when he was still a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI signed a document saying that men with deeply-rooted homosexual tendencies should be barred from the priesthood. Pope Benedict also reaffirmed his commitment to the “traditional family,” and suggested that homosexuality was a choice running counter to God-given nature.
Similarly, Pope John Paul II denounced gay marriage in a 2005 speech where he said that family “must never be undermined by laws based on a narrow and unnatural vision of man.”
Some Catholics pointed out that Pope Francis is a long way from endorsing same-sex marriage, but the pope’s comments nevertheless signal a significant change in approach to the LGBT community.
“I don’t think there’s breaking news here, but I do think stylistically, he’s engaged in outreach with many who have felt alienated from the Catholic Church,” said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League. “There’s a big difference between that and saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to roll out of bed tomorrow and say same-sex marriage is ok.’”
But a change in style is still a change, one that many gay rights advocates are celebrating.
“Like his namesake, Francis’s humility and respect for human dignity are showing through, and the widespread positive response his words have received around the world reveals that Catholics everywhere are thirsty for change,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign in a statement.
Griffin called for the Catholic Church to go one step further than Pope Francis, and change its teachings that being gay by itself indicates an “objective disorder.”
“It’s time to send positive and affirming messages to all people, because the Bible is clear,” he said. “All people have dignity in themselves and in their love for one another. It’s time for Church teaching to reflect that simple fact.”