Pope Francis drew huge crowds during his recent visit to Brazil, and then made headlines for saying he had no right to judge homosexuals, a remark he made during an 80-minute press conference aboard the flight back to Rome.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis said, using the English word “gay” though speaking primarily in Italian.
Photos taken on the papal airplane showed the pontiff looking relaxed as he added, “the tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem. . . . They’re our brothers.”
While Vatican experts pointed out that Francis’ comments did not advocate acting on homosexual tendencies, and were not a departure from the church’s official views, Chair of the Department of Religion Randall Balmer says the pontiff’s remarks are noteworthy.
“While it is true that the pope’s comments on homosexuality do not, strictly speaking, represent a departure from church teaching, the fact that he volunteered such comments, when he could easily have dodged the question, strikes me as significant,” says Balmer, the Mandel Family Professor in the Arts & Sciences. “There’s a danger in these matters of seeing what you want to see and hearing what you want to hear, but I find it promising that Francis struck a tone of conciliation rather than confrontation. I cannot imagine his predecessor (Pope Benedict XVI) doing the same.
“Francis clearly wants to be seen as a pope in the style of John Paul II, someone affable and approachable. That style seems consistent both with his past and with his persona.”
Additionally, Balmer addressed news reports that Francis had spoken of a “theology of women,” an indication that he would like women to have a greater role in the church.
“The engines of change in the Roman Catholic Church turn slowly, almost imperceptibly, and sometimes not at all,” says Balmer. “Those of us who tend to view the glass as half full will see the pope’s comments on gays and women as harbingers of change.”