First, the good news. Pope Francis is already showing himself to be a winsome, endearing and inspiring successor to St. Peter. His trip to Brazil catapulted him to rock-star status, with his care for the poor and the dispossessed, his willingness to engage the throngs with little regard for his security and even with his crowd-pleasing offer of a song on the guitar. This is no formal and aloof bishop but rather a man of and for the people. Justice is on his mind and his lips.
But it was a question he was asked on the flight back to Rome, about homosexuality, that has come to define the trip and has sparked hope that the Roman Catholic Church might be softening its stance on being gay. (Even using the word gay, which Francis did in English while otherwise speaking Italian, is unprecedented for a Pope.)
Is there anything new in what he had to say? Well, yes, in terms of tone. And this is no small thing. Francis' immediate predecessors called homosexuality an "intrinsic moral evil" and branded homosexuals as "intrinsically disordered." Instead of mirroring those blanket condemnations, Francis offered kindness and compassion. Then, in an act of genuine humility, he asked, "Who am I to judge?" It is telling that this rhetorical question got so much attention, since Jesus, who Christians believe was the perfect revelation of God, warned, "Judge not, that you be not judged." Yet previous Popes have shown no hesitation in being judgmental about homosexuality. This change in tone is significant.
Before we declare a new day for Catholics regarding homosexuality, however, a closer look at the Pope's statement reveals little change in the church's stance on being gay. When Francis says gay people should be forgiven their sins like other people, he means that acting on their feelings for someone of the same gender is still a sin that requires forgiveness--a point the Vatican made clear shortly after his remarks.
Francis' more open tone may mean the most for gay Catholic priests. Rather than calling for them to be expelled from the church, Francis is preaching compassion--so long as they are true to their vows of celibacy. Most encouraging of all is the separation of gay priests from the sexual-abuse scandals of the past. Both Benedict XVI and John Paul II thought they would solve the scandals by ridding the church of gay priests--a wholly unfair linking of homosexuality with pedophilia that has been thoroughly debunked by science. This is enormously positive for gay priests, who have been living under a cloud of suspicion for years.
But what about gay parishioners sitting in the pews of Catholic churches, trying to reconcile their faith with the condemnation of their love as disordered, evil and sinful? Not much has changed, I'm afraid, even with the Pope's recent remarks. While it may be all right to be gay, it is not all right to act on it, which forces gay Catholics to adopt an involuntary vow of celibacy in order to be in good standing with the church and God.