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Pope’s comments on gay clergy mark change in style–if not substance

Although LGBT groups found the pope's comments on gay priests "very welcome," Catholic groups pointed out that they were consistent with Church doctrine that loves the sinner but hates the sin.
/ Source: Thomas Roberts

Although LGBT groups found the pope's comments on gay priests "very welcome," Catholic groups pointed out that they were consistent with Church doctrine that loves the sinner but hates the sin.

Pope Francis listens to journalists’ questions as he flies back Rome following his visit to Brazil July 29, 2013.(Photo by Luca Zennaro/Reuters)

Returning to the Vatican from his first official trip overseas, Pope Francis delivered what many have perceived to be a marked shift in tone—if not also position—on the church’s view of homosexuality.

“I have yet to find on a Vatican identity card the word gay,” said the pontiff in a surprisingly sweeping response to questions about the reported “gay lobby,” an alleged  group of gay clergymen linked to corruption and blackmail within the Vatican.

“They say there are some gay people here,” the Pope said. “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?”

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point beautifully,” he continued. “It says, these persons must never be marginalized and ‘they must be integrated into society.’”

To many, the pope’s remarks indicated a significant shift in view from those held by his predecessors, and perhaps the beginning of a sea change for the Catholic Church.

“Under the previous two Popes, there was a real effort to root gay men out of the priesthood,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, an organization of gay and lesbian Catholics. “Pope Francis’ recognition that gay men can serve the priesthood is very welcome.”

In 2005, 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 as recently as last Christmas. In a departure from Pope Benedict’s approach to homosexuality, Pope Francis stood by a trusted aide accused of having a male lover years ago, saying that nothing came out of a canonical investigation into the matter.

While Pope Francis’ comments may have been welcome, they are nothing new, said Mary Ann Walsh, spokesperson and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Church doctrine, she explained, accepts anyone with gay attractions, so long as they don’t act on them.

“The church has always made it very clear that homosexuals are welcome,” said Walsh 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 Vatican teaches that gay men and women should not be discriminated against, 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.

“Gays are allowed into the priesthood,” said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a Catholic civil rights organization. “If a person is gay and chaste, he’s not barred. I think the media is mistaking a change in style for a change in substance.”

But a change in style is still a change, one that many gay rights advocates are celebrating.

“As long as millions of LGBT Catholic individuals, couples and youth alike are told in churches big and small that their lives and their families are disordered and sinful because of how they are born—how God made them—then the Church is sending a deeply harmful message,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign in a statement.

“One’s sexuality is an immutable characteristic, and every leading medical and mental health organization has declared that attempts to change or suppress that fact are profoundly damaging,” Griffin said. “It’s time to send positive and affirming messages to all people, because the Bible is clear. All people have dignity in themselves and in their love for one another. It’s time for Church teaching to reflect that simple fact.”