Papal PR: Returning From His Rock-Star Reception in Brazil, Pope Francis Stuns the World By Opening the Door to Church’s Acceptance of Gays

In a stunning move that signifies a sea change in Roman Catholic tolerance, Pope Francis opened the door this weekend to greater acceptance of gay priests inside the ranks of the church as he returned to the Vatican from his maiden trip overseas.

During a news conference, he 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’s 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 asked, speaking in Italian. “You can’t marginalize these people,” he added, MarketWatch reports.

The 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 3 million at a Sunday Mass 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, from corruption at the Vatican bank to the long-running sexual-abuse crisis, MarketWatch reports in an article by Stacy Meichtry.

Pope Francis’s 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.

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,” he added, the MarketWatch article reports.

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 priests 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,’” he added, according to the article.

Edited by Richard Carufel

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