Sexual orientation

Behind the Pope’s Surprising Shift The Times’s Ian Fisher, a former Rome bureau chief, on
the pope’s statement on gay priests and how it differentiates Francis from previous leaders of the
Catholic Church.
July 29, 2013
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 suggesting that he would not judge
priests for their sexual orientation, made aboard the papal airplane on the way
back from his first foreign trip, to Brazil, resonated through the church. Never
veering from church doctrine opposing homosexuality, Francis did strike a more
compassionate tone than that of his predecessors, some of whom had largely
avoided even saying the more colloquial “gay.”
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to
judge?” Francis told reporters, speaking in Italian but using the English word
Francis’s 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.” The church document said men
with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” should not become 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 generate significant
discussion 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,” Mr. Rodari said.
“Said by a pope, it’s enormous.”
Francis also told reporters that while Pope John Paul II had definitively closed the
door to female priests, he sought a “theology of women” and a greater role for
them in Catholic life, news reports said.
The pope’s comments on homosexuals and women in the church were yet another
sign of the different directions from which Benedict and Francis approach
doctrine. While Benedict, the shy theologian, focused more on ethics and
advocated a purer church, even if it might end 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
“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 The 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 postmodern society.
In contrast, Francis spoke on the beach, engaged with the masses and was greeted
like a rock star by followers entranced by his approachable style and homespun
folksy adages. (“You can always add more water to the beans,” he said at one
More than a million people gathered for an open-air Mass on Copacabana Beach
on Sunday. At one event, bishops danced on stage to upbeat music. The spectacle
was clearly aimed at competing with Evangelical churches that have a more “pop”
“We can see the figure of Peter so near to us,” said Milena Rocha, 20, a Brazilian
student who slept on the beach Saturday night along with thousands of others in a
vigil before the pope’s final Mass on Sunday, comparing Francis to St. Peter.
She said that the vigil, in which many camped on the sands on pieces of
cardboard, showed the energy that Francis was bringing to the church in Brazil,
which has more Catholics than any other country, an estimated 123 million.
Despite missteps by organizers, including one that compromised security, the visit
unfolded peacefully, giving many people a chance to glimpse or even embrace
“This pope keeps renewing the church,” said Claudia Brandão, 30, a housewife
who traveled from Angola with her 9-month-old daughter.
In 2007, “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 Mr. Allen, who traveled to
Brazil for both trips.
Before he resigned in February, Benedict’s papacy had been marked by scandals
— a sexual 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,” Mr.
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 Vatican Bank
troubles to his decision not to live in the Apostolic Palace but rather in a Vatican
Francis did not dodge a single question, even thanking the person who prompted
his comments on homosexuality, asking about Italian news reports of a “gay
lobby” inside the Vatican, with clerics blackmailing one another with information
about sexual missteps.
“So much is written about the gay lobby. I have yet to find on a Vatican identity
card the word ‘gay,’ ” Francis said, chuckling. “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.”
An article in the Italian weekly L’Espresso this month alleged that one of the
advisers that Francis had appointed to look into the Vatican Bank, Msgr. Battista
Ricca, had been accused of having gay trysts when he was a Vatican diplomat in
Uruguay. The pope told reporters that nothing in the documentation he had seen
substantiated the reports.
He added that such a lobby would be an issue, but that he did not have anything
against gay people and that their sins should be forgiven like those of all
Catholics. Francis said that homosexuals should be treated with dignity, and that
no one should be subjected to blackmail or pressure because of sexual orientation.
“The problem isn’t having this orientation. The problem is making a lobby,” he
In recent years, both Benedict and Francis have tried to make changes at the
Vatican Bank so that it meets international anti-money-laundering norms that are
a condition for using the euro.
Asked about the bank, Francis said, “Some say that it’s better to have a bank,
others that it would be better to have a fund, still others say to close it.”
Asked what was in the black briefcase that he was seen carrying onto the plane
by himself en route to Brazil, Francis said he had a razor, a breviary and a book
about St. Teresa. “It’s normal to carry a bag,” he said, according to news reports.
“I’m a bit surprised that the image of the bag made its way around the world.
Anyway, it wasn’t the suitcase with the codes for the nuclear bomb.”
Simon Romero and Taylor Barnes contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.
Correction: July 29, 2013
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect date for Pope Benedict XVI’s trip
to Brazil. His visit to Latin America, including Brazil, was in 2007, not 2006.


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