ROME For generations, homosexuality has largely been a taboo topic for the Vatican, ignored altogether or treated as “an intrinsic moral evil,” in the words of the previous pope.
In that context, brief remarks by Pope Francis in the back of the papal airplane on the way back from his first foreign foray, to Brazil, attracted significant attention. Never veering from church doctrine opposing homosexuality, Francis did strike a more compassionate tone than that of his predecessors, some of whom studiously avoided even saying the word “gay.”
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” he told reporters, speaking in Italian.
Francis’ words could not have been more different from those of Benedict XVI, who in 2005 wrote that homosexuality was “a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” and an “objective disorder.” He banned men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from becoming priests.
Vatican experts were quick to point out that Francis was not suggesting that the priests or anyone else should act on their homosexual tendencies, which the church considers a sin. But the fact that he made such comments – and used the word “gay” – was nevertheless revolutionary, and likely to resonate in local dioceses, where bishops are divided over whether to accept priests who are gay but celibate.
“It’s not a great opening in terms of contents, but the fact that he talked about it that way is a great novelty,” said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at the Italian daily La Repubblica. Francis would probably agree with Benedict’s writings on homosexuality, he added, “but it doesn’t interest him.”
“It interests him to say that the problem in the end isn’t if someone has this tendency, the important thing is to live in the light of God,” Rodari said. “Said by a pope, it’s enormous.”
The pope’s comments were yet another sign of how Benedict and Francis approach doctrine from different directions.
While Benedict, the shy theologian, focused more on ethics and advocated a more pure church, even if it might wind up being smaller, Francis was elected for his belief that the Catholic Church must engage in dialogue with the world – even with those it disagrees with – if it wants to stay vibrant and relevant.
“At a certain point, tone becomes substance if it’s seen as revitalizing the prospects of the church,” said John L. Allen, Jr., a Vatican expert at National Catholic Reporter.
In Benedict’s more subdued 2007 visit to Brazil, where evangelical churches are making rapid inroads in the Catholic majority, he delivered speeches to bishops about how to respond to post-modern society.
In contrast, Francis spoke on the beach, delved into the masses and was greeted like a rock star by followers entranced by his approachable style and homespun folk adages. (“You can always add more water to the beans,” he said at one point.)
More than 1 million people gathered for an open-air Mass on Copacabana Beach on Sunday. At one point, bishops danced on stage to upbeat music. The event was clearly aimed at competing with evangelical churches that have a more “pop” style.
“Benedict came and played the standard classical nocturne that he was famous for, and his devotees loved it. Francis came and played the guitar in his very accessible style and the crowds went wild,” said Allen, who traveled to Brazil with the pope.
Before he resigned in February, Benedict’s papacy had been marked by scandals – a sex abuse scandal, a leaks scandal and trouble with the secretive Vatican Bank. Francis, with his style of radical simplicity and his direct manner, has shifted things.
“He’s completely changed the narrative about the church,” Allen said. “In five months, now the dominant Catholic story is ‘Charismatic pope takes world by storm.’ ”
During his papal trips, John Paul II loved to walk to the back of the plane and chat with reporters, while Benedict only responded to a handful of preselected questions. Francis, on the overnight flight back to Rome from Rio de Janeiro, spoke freely to reporters for 80 minutes about everything from the troubled Vatican Bank to the greater role that he believed women should have in the Catholic Church.
Francis did not dodge a single question, even thanking the person who prompted his comments on homosexuality by asking about Italian press reports about a “gay lobby” inside the Vatican, in which clerics blackmailed each other with information about each other’s sexual missteps.
“A lot is written about this ‘gay lobby.’ I still haven’t found anyone at the Vatican who has ‘gay’ on his business card,” Francis said, chuckling, according to The Associated Press. “You have to distinguish between the fact that someone is gay and the fact of being in a ‘lobby.’ ”
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