ABOARD THE PAPAL AIRCRAFT (AP) — Pope Francis reached out to gays, saying he won’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a remarkably open and wide-ranging news conference yesterday as he returned from his first foreign trip.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis asked. “We shouldn’t marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society.”
Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, signed a document in 2005 that said men who had deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. Francis was much more conciliatory in his first news conference as pope, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.
The comments did not signal any change in church policy. Catholic teaching still holds that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” But they indicated a shift in tone under Francis’ young papacy and an emphasis on a church that is more inclusive and merciful rather than critical and disciplinary.
Francis also said he wanted a greater role for women in the church, though he insisted they cannot become priests.
He was funny and candid during the 82 minutes he spent with journalists on board the plane returning from Brazil. He didn’t dodge a single question, and even thanked the journalist who raised allegations contained in an Italian news magazine that one of his trusted monsignors was involved in a gay tryst.
Francis said he investigated the allegations according to canon law and found nothing to back them up.
He took journalists to task for reporting on the matter, saying the allegations concerned matters of sin, not crimes like sexually abusing children. And when someone sins and confesses, he said, God not only forgives — but forgets.
“We don’t have the right to not forget,” he said.
The directness of Francis’ comments suggested that he wants to put the matter of the monsignor behind him, while also setting a new tone of openness as he focuses on his key priority of reforming the Holy See bureaucracy.
Francis was also asked about reports suggesting a group of gay clergymen exert undue influence on Vatican policy. Italian news media reported this year the allegations of what they call the “gay lobby” contributed to Benedict’s decision to resign.
The term “gay lobby” is bandied about with abandon in the Italian media, and is decidedly vague. Interpretations of what it means have ranged from the benign concept of a group of celibate gay priests who are friends, to a suggestion that a group of sexually active gay priests use blackmail to exert influence on Vatican decision-making.
Stressing Catholic social teaching calls for homosexuals to be treated with dignity and not marginalized, Francis said he would not condone anyone using private information for blackmail or to exert pressure.
“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. “You have to distinguish between the fact that someone is gay and the fact of being in a ‘lobby.’”
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author and commentator, saw the pope’s remarks as a sign of mercy.
“Today Pope Francis has, once again, lived out the Gospel message of compassion for everyone,” he said in an email.