Pope Francis opened the door on Sunday to greater acceptance of gay priests inside the ranks of Roman Catholicism as he returned to the Vatican from his maiden trip overseas.
Fielding questions from reporters during the first news conference of his young papacy, the pontiff broached the delicate question of how he would respond to learning that a cleric in his ranks was gay, though not sexually active. For decades, the Vatican has regarded homosexuality as a "disorder," and Pope Francis' predecessor Pope Benedict XVI formally barred men with what the Vatican deemed "deep-seated" homosexuality from entering the priesthood.
"Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?" the pontiff said, speaking in Italian. "You can't marginalize these people."
Never before had a pope spoken out in defense of gay priests in the Catholic ministry, said Vatican analysts. Past popes have traditionally treated homosexuality as an obstacle to priestly celibacy, and the Vatican has sent extensive instructions to Catholic seminaries on how to restrict gay candidates from the priesthood.
Still, Pope Francis referred to homosexual acts as a sin, reaffirming church teaching.
Pope Francis "is showing a deep respect for the human condition as it is instead of approaching things in a doctrinal way," said Alberto Melloni, a church historian.
Women, the pope said, couldn't be ordained as priests, because the issue had been "definitively" settled by Pope John Paul II. However, he wanted to develop a "theology of the woman," in order to expand and deepen their involvement in the life of the church.
Pope Francis celebrated the final Mass of his Brazil trip at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro Sunday.
The 80-minute news conference was wide-ranging and hastily arranged aboard an overnight flight that returned the pontiff to Rome Monday from a weeklong trip to Brazil, where millions of people flocked to see him, including three million at a Mass Sunday on the beach in Rio de Janeiro. The rock-star reception, analysts say, is likely to strengthen the pope's hand as he confronts myriad challenges awaiting him at the Vatican, including corruption at the Vatican bank to the long-running sexual-abuse crisis.
Pope Francis' remarks on homosexuality came as he mused at length on one scandal that erupted on his predecessor's watch: a secret Vatican report leaked to the Italian media purporting that a clique of homosexual Vatican clerics had formed a "gay lobby" that was secretly pulling the strings inside the Holy See.
The Argentine pontiff said he had discussed the findings of the internal Vatican report with Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned in early February. The German pope emeritus, Pope Francis said, had given him a box full of documentation and testimony from the internal report prepared by three octogenarian cardinals before he stepped down.
In a nuanced yet candid reflection, the pope carefully drew a distinction between the possibility of pressure groups existing inside the Vatican—which he defined as a "problem"—and the potential presence of gay priests within Vatican ranks.
"You have to distinguish between the fact of a person being gay, and the fact of a lobby," the pope said. "The problem isn't having this orientation. The problem is making a lobby."
The comments cut to the core of one of the most challenging issues facing the Catholic priesthood. Bishops who run local dioceses have long been divided over whether to accept gay priests who are chaste. While some bishops are tolerant of homosexuality, the Vatican's ban on gay men entering the priesthood has forced many clerics to keep their sexuality hidden from superiors who are likely to crack down.
For bishops, the issue boils down to if "you got a priest you know is gay but is not active is that a problem for you or not?" said John L. Allen, a Vatican analyst with the National Catholic Reporter. "For this pope the answer is 'no.'"
This is a nice contrast to events in Russia and Uganda.