Pope Francis’ comments that he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation likely “made a lot of friends, but also some of enemies,” predicted Massimo Faggioli, a professor in the theology department at the University of St. Thomas.
“There are Catholics who are completely shocked by this kind of new emphasis,” he said. “On the other side, more liberal Catholics perceive that there’s something new in terms of language, in terms of approach, that makes Francis an interesting example in what it means to be a pastor, a shepherd.”
Although the comments were part of an interview rather than a formal decree, Faggioli said that their potential impact should not be underestimated.
“Especially in the United States, we tend to think that the Catholic Church changes only when we change the official documents, but that’s only partially true,” he said. “The church changes also when it changes approach, and I think this is what Pope Francis is doing.”
Even if it is just an attitude change, it’s a huge one, said Paula Ruddy of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform.
“This is a completely different tack than condemning and being negative toward GLBT people” that some church leaders have been accused of in the past, she said. While the pope’s comments lack the power of policy, “they’re a good example, and I hope the U.S. bishops take their cue from him,” she said.
The comments directly contradict the Vatican’s previous stance on homosexuality, said Brian McNeill, president of Dignity Twin Cities.
“This is a huge change from a statement in 1986 in which Cardinal Ratzinger [who would become Pope Benedict] called homosexuality an ‘objective disorder’ and ‘an intrinsic moral evil,’ ” McNeill said. “For Pope Francis to say, ‘They are our brothers’ are welcome words. They’re music to my ears.”
The statement also was hopeful news for Michael Bayly, who has spent years arguing with Catholic officials over the church’s attitude toward gays.
“If nothing else, this should end the witch hunt that has taken place in some circles,” said Bayly, executive coordinator of the Minneapolis-based Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities. The pope’s statements “should at least give the people who are attacking us pause the next time they want to say something. They should help quell the anti-gay bias.”
Even though the pope limited his focus to priests, Bayly hopes the message has impact across the entire gay community. “He was talking about not being judgmental,” Bayly said. “That should apply to everyone. None of us should be judging anyone.”
He also said that from his perspective, the pope’s comments bring church leadership closer to the attitudes of the membership.
“To me, the church has two parts,” Bayly said. “The people of the church and the hierarchy of the church. It’s the hierarchy that has been anti-gay.”
People attending the noon mass at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis echoed those sentiments.
“To me, gay means happy, and as long as they’re happy and they continue to do God’s will, I think that’s a great and wonderful thing,” said Greg DeLander of Minnetonka. “I love the pope.”