"If Someone is Gay and He Searches For the Lord…Who Am I to Judge?"

Posted: Jul 29, 2013 11:05 AM

At a press conference on Monday during his return journey from the World Youth Day festivities in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis didn’t equivocate when asked an admittedly tough question about the role of gay priests in the Catholic Church:

ABOARD THE PAPAL AIRCRAFT (AP) -- Pope Francis reached out to gays on Monday, saying he wouldn't judge priests for their sexual orientation in a remarkably open and wide-ranging news conference as he returned from his first foreign trip.

"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" Francis asked.

His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, signed a document in 2005 that said men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. Francis was much more conciliatory, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.

Francis' remarks came Monday during a plane journey back to the Vatican from his first foreign trip in Brazil.

Some will inevitably say that these comments were a cold and calculated ploy to soften the Church’s image as a traditional and conservative institution. I don’t believe that’s the case. Pope Francis strikes me as man of deep conviction, who as the Successor of Saint Peter is called to love every man, woman and child equally regardless of sexual orientation – as Jesus does. “[T]hey’re our brothers,” he intoned during the press conference. And as a consequence, they deserve to be loved and respected.

At the same time, there’s a difference between sympathizing and reaching out in good faith to the gay community -- and specifically, gay priests -- and changing church doctrine. For example, those who interpret these comments as a sign Pope Francis will one day support same-sex marriage are sorely mistaken. In his book On Heaven and Earth, co-written with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio explicitly defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Every child, he argues, deserves a mother and a father.

Still, Catholics believe that because we are all sinners and fallen creatures, reconciliation is an important first step towards divine mercy and recognizing Christ's love. Thus Pope Francis’ comments reflect Christ’s promise of forgiveness to those whom earnestly seek it -- one of the core tenets of the Catholic faith -- and should not be interpreted as a ringing endorsement of a lifestyle the Church finds deeply at odds with natural law.