The worldwide media erupted with rejoicing earlier this week when, during an impromptu press conference, Pope Francis answered a question (in Italian) about the supposed gay lobby at the Vatican by saying, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Reporters and commentators immediately jumped to the conclusion that the new leader of the Catholic Church had decided to condone homosexual behavior. After all, what else could it mean?
A lot, according to the Catholic priests who are speaking out now to put the pope’s comments in context.
“He’s articulating well, in a beautifully tender way, the traditional teaching of the Church,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told CBS News. “That while certain acts may be wrong, we will always love and respect the person, and treat the person with dignity.”
Dolan went on to compare the pope’s comments to Jesus’ teaching when he met the woman caught in adultery. While He told her He did not condemn her, He also told her to sin no more.
In his answer, Pope Francis indirectly referred to the Catholic Catechism, which says homosexual people “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” But it goes on to say that both the inclination and the act of homosexuality is “objectively disordered,” according to the Catholic News Service, which pointed out that the Pope did not challenge those teachings. Pope Francis made his comments in response to a question about the “gay lobby,” a group inside the Vatican that purportedly protects each other. Pope Francis said it was important to distinguish between the individual and the “lobby.”
Other authorities in the Catholic Church also took the opportunity to point out that Pope Francis was not changing the teaching of the church.
“Pope Francis’ remarks reiterate Catholic teaching that the Church is open to all people, including those with same-sex attractions, but homosexual activity is contrary to the Gospel of Christ — just as all sexual activity outside of marriage would be,” Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead wrote in a statement released by the Diocese of Phoenix. “A priest must be able to live a healthy, celibate lifestyle, whether or not he has ever experienced same-sex attractions.”
Bishop Robert C. Morlino, of Wisconsin, chimed in on his Facebook page, saying, “A ‘good will’ is ordered toward the good—in conformity with the natural law. A ‘good will’ wills good actions. It wills not to perform certain other behaviors. With regard to sexuality: A good will leads to chaste behavior. This is what the Pope means by his remarks.”
The general consensus of Catholic leadership seems to be that, at most, Pope Francis’ response may be a change of tone but in no way a change of teaching.
Cardinal Dolan’s explanation is perhaps the most cogent: “A gentle, merciful, understanding, and compassionate tone—that may be something that people find new and refreshing. I for one don’t, and I hate to see previous popes caricatured as not having that. … What surprises me is that people are surprised.”