Pope Francis made history this week. Sunday he said mass for up to 3 million people on a beach in Brazil; he presided over the world’s largest flash mob which featured a group of octogenarian Bishops “dancing” on stage; and he held the longest news conference of any Pope in recent history.
What Francis said in that 80 minute news conference in the back of a plane was more historical than the length of the interchange. With 5 simple words the Pope sent ripples through the Catholic Church and all of Christianity on the treatment of the LGBT community, and he elevated the status of women as well.
The Pope was asked a question about a “gay lobby” which the Italian press claims has undue influence in the Vatican. In the course of answering that question, the Pope said five words that set a new tone on how the Catholic Church relates to gay and lesbians—inside and outside the clergy.
“If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” The Pontiff went further: “You can’t marginalize these people.” He also opened the door for openly gay men being ordained as priests. Pope Benedict essentially banned ordination of gays as a response to the sexual abuse scandal in the Church. Unfortunately that policy and the Benedict’s choice of words sent an absurd and hateful signal that all gay men and women are rapists and pedophiles.
The Pope drew a distinction between the crime of sexual abuse and the “sin” of extramarital sex—gay or hetero, in the eye of the Church. He said homosexual sex between consenting adults is a sin contrasting that with the crime of sexual abuse of children or non-consensual sex between adults. He said one confesses his sin, he is forgiven and the Church has a “duty” to forget– meaning there should be no stigma attached.
The Pope did not signal any inclination to change Church dogma on same sex marriage, but he referred to gays as “our brothers,” using for the first time the term “gay” rather than homosexual or worse. The term “brother” sets a far different tone than used by other Popes like Benedict who called homosexuality “a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” and an “objective disorder.”
Francis sounds more like Jesus than previous Popes
Pope Francis also gave a short answer to a question about ordination of women saying that the Church closed that door long ago. It was what else he said that was significant.
The Church needs to do more to include women in the theology of the Church, he said. Francis made pointed out that Mary, mother of Jesus, holds a higher position of influence in Church history than the “12 Apostle Bishops.” He said that women need to have a greater role in the theology of the Church.
When the Pope said that the issue of ordination of women had been settled he said ordination of women “bishops” had been settled. Does that mean that someday women could be ordained as priests but not bishops? No one knows but the Pontiff but it was interesting given how unambiguous his comments about gays were.
In Protestant denominations like Episcopalians and Lutherans, women were ordained as priests and ministers, but it took a long time before women were allowed to be installed as bishops. So is the door open for the priesthood, or did ne misspeak?
These comments may not have been the changes in doctrine that the LGBT community or women would like to have heard, but the radical change in tone was significant. Until the Church can look at women and gays as brothers and sisters, there can be no change in doctrine. Pope Francis has made it clear that gays are children of God and only God can judge them. He also raised the status of women even if it is just in tone for now.
Not all Catholics were happy to hear what he said, but not all Israelites were happy with what Jesus had to say either. For most Catholics, however, the tone of love, acceptance, and respect is welcome and long overdue.
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