Pope Francis did not alter Church teaching or discipline when he told reporters that he would not judge a homosexual priest. But he did send a very important signal about his pastoral priorities. Most journalists, I’m afraid, have missed that message.
Context is everything. To understand the Pope’s remarks, one must recognize that he was responding to a particular question on a delicate subject: a question about reports that the newly appointed prelate of the Vatican bank, Msgr. Battista Ricca, had a history of scandalous homosexual affairs.
Sando Magister, an influential reporter who covers Vatican affairs for the Italian journal L’Espresso, had proclaimed the Ricca affair the first key test for Pope Francis and his plans for reform. Magister had published the accusations against Msgr. Ricca, insisted on their accuracy, and charged that the “gay lobby” at the Vatican whitewashed the prelate’s record to smooth the way for his appointment.
Pope Francis replied to the question by saying that he had investigated the charges and found nothing damaging to Msgr. Ricca. He might have stopped with that; he had answered the question. But the Pope went further—apparently because he wanted to say something about the question of homosexuality.
If Msgr. Ricca had been guilty of homosexual acts in the past, the Pope indicated, he would not necessarily be disqualified from a sensitive Vatican post. “So many times I think of St. Peter,” the Pope said. “He committed one of the worst sins, denying Christ. And with this sin they made him Pope.”
(My quotations from the Pope here are taken from the valuable but incomplete transcript provided by John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter. Presumably the Vatican will furnish a full transcript soon.)
Sinners can be forgiven, the Pope told the reporters. Sinners can work at the Vatican. Actually, the Vatican staff is composed exclusively of sinners. He cautioned reporters against digging into the past misdeeds of their subjects; that approach is “dangerous,” he said. It is also un-Christian; as Jesus offers forgiveness, so should his followers.
So the Pope did not say that homosexual actions were acceptable. Nor did he say that homosexuals should be welcomed into the priesthood. His statement was perfectly in keeping with current Church teaching and with current Vatican policies.
Nevertheless, the Holy Father obviously had a reason for making these comments. He was indicating that he does not intend to root out all Vatican officials who might have homosexual inclinations. Those inclinations, he said quite clearly, are not the crucial problem.
What is the crucial problem? Pope Francis said that the fundamental issue—remember, in the context of Vatican reform—is the existence of a “lobby.” He spoke of his determination to eliminate any sort of lobby: a lobby of greedy clerics, a lobby of Masons, a political lobby, or, yes, a lobby of homosexuals. If there is a “gay lobby” at the Holy See, the Pope has set out to eliminate it. Far from dismissing that possibility, the Pope said quite clearly that the drive to rout the in-house lobbies is “the most serious problem for me.”
There were two messages, then, in the Pope’s comments. First, he is not interested in a purge of Vatican officials who may have homosexual tendencies. Second, he is very much interested in ensuring that gay clerics do not constitute an active faction within the Vatican bureaucracy—just as he is interested in reforms that will prevent political and commercial interests from forming any such faction.
Read in context, the Pope’s comments show a determination to pursue real reform, ridding the Vatican bureaucracy of special interests. At the same time he has indicated that this reform must be guided by the basic principles of Christian charity. He does not want to punish corrupt Church officials; he wants to convert them into effective apostolic workers.
During an entirely different portion of his in-flight interview, the Holy Father made a very revealing comment about the challenges facing the Catholic Church today. Answering a question about divorced and remarried Catholics, the Pope said: “I believe this is a time of mercy, a change of epoch.”
“A change of epoch”—that is a very striking phrase, a hint that the Pope sees his own plans for Church reform as part of a historic shift. Throughout these first months of his pontificate, Francis has spoken frequently about God’s infinite mercy. He wants to proclaim that mercy, and he wants to practice it. This is the key message of the Pope’s exchange with reporters. God forgives; the Pope forgives; the Church forgives. Spreading this message of mercy is the top priority of his pontificate, and the guiding principle for the reforms he is preparing to undertake.