What Did the Pope Really Say about Gays in the Priesthood?

Very few popes give off-the-cuff interviews to reporters to begin with, and even less joke and have fun with the reporters. So, when Pope Francis did just that as he returned from World Youth Day, it was a stunner. It wasn’t so much that he said he “does not judge gays”—after all, the meaning itself can be taken as solid Catholic doctrine, that we are never to judge the person, only the sin—but the fact that, in context, there was also the possibility he was saying something far different.

Could his words be taken as suggesting a reversal of the teaching of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI who stated in 2005 that homosexuality was  “a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” and  an “objective disorder”—and  who ruled that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” should not become priests?

The “progressive” media certainly hoped so.  The New York Times suggested that the Pope’s words meant that “he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation” and that the he struck “a more compassionate tone than his predecessor” merely by using the term “gay” instead of homosexual.

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Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter went further and stated that in the interview “Pope Francis made clear that being gay is not an impediment for ordination.”

But I will argue that while the Pope was speaking in his own characteristic way, he agreed completely with Pope Benedict XVI’s teachings and decisions on homosexuality and the priesthood.

A large part of the problem in figuring out the Pope’s meaning is due to the nuance of language and the wishful interpretations of those, like the New York Times and the National Catholic Reporter, who wish to see homosexuality accepted in the Church and the priesthood.

Then the Pope got tangled up in discussing the related but separate issue of “a gay lobby,” which is a grave moral and political problem in the Vatican bureaucracy.

Media reports of the Pope’s words in his interview on this issue were consistent.  The Pope said that one must “distinguish between a person who is gay and someone who makes a gay lobby.”  Pope Francis said that while  “A gay lobby isn’t good, … A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will—well, who am I to judge him?” He said that,  “The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says one must not marginalize these persons, they must be integrated into society.” So according to Pope Francis “The problem isn’t this (homosexual) orientation” but rather “the problem is lobbying for … this orientation.”

But note that the Pope is speaking about  “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will,” not a gay who dissents from the teachings of the Church and Sacred Scripture on homosexuality.

Secondly, the Pope says that the problem  “isn’t this (homosexual) orientation” but “lobbying … for this orientation.” Clearly, the Pope is not only opposed to homosexual acts but he is also against encouraging or promoting this homosexual orientation. He gave no indication he believes anything other than what Pope Benedict taught that the “orientation” toward homosexuality is an “intrinsic disorder.” But true to his pastoral gentleness, and in the relaxed setting of a spontaneous interview, he was emphasizing the fact that we must help the “gays” who “are seeking God and have “good will” by “integrating” them into “society,” including the Catholic Community.

But did Pope Francis say anything to indicate that gays could enter the priesthood?”

Again, context is everything. The pope was being asked about his appointment of a priest, Msgr. Battista Ricca, to a Vatican Bank position even after he heard of allegations about Msgr. Ricca’s previous homosexual lifestyle.

In his press conference, Pope Francis explained his decision to give the Vatican Bank job to Msgr. Ricca by stating: “I did what canon law said must be done, I ordered an ‘investigation brevia,’ and this investigation found nothing.”

Note: “The investigation found nothing.”

The mere fact that the pope ordered an investigation into Msgr. Ricca’s alleged homosexuality prior to the appointment shows he was concerned about appointing a homosexual.

Then, the pope reverts to his pastoral teaching mode, and here’s where I think he was misunderstood: “At times in the church, outside this case, but also in this one, we go searching for the sins—of one’s youth, for example—for publicity. I’m not talking about crimes here—the abuse of a minor is a crime—but of sins.”

I think it very likely this pope, who has proven to be so powerfully present to every individual he sees directly before him, was looking at these worldly press people and thinking of them and their souls when he went on to say: “But if a person, whether a layperson, priest or sister, goes to confession and converts, the Lord forgives. And when the Lord forgives, he forgets. This is important,” said the Pope, “because those who want the Lord to forget their sins should forget those of others.”

Is it possible the Pope is also here suggesting that it might be permissible for a priest to remain in the priesthood as long as he has overcome his homosexuality and his history does not involve a sin or crime against the young? We do not know his mind on that yet. But in this interview Pope Francis certainly did not say anything contrary to Pope Benedict’s assertion in his recent book, Light of the World, that “homosexuality is incompatible with the priesthood.”

I still believe this was a case of a new pope, who hates artifice and who has the tendency to speak spontaneously from his heart, who was trying to explain to a skeptical, worldly press that every human being, no matter what their past sins or orientation, can seek God.

Our best guide is still the account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Jesus protected the woman from being stoned to death, but He did not protect her sin. I believe that was the distinction Pope Francis was reaching for. Let’s give him a chance to clarify.

Finally, what about this business of a “gay lobby” operating in the Vatican and Pope Francis’ quip on his way back from WYD: “Quite a lot has been published about the gay lobby. I have yet to find someone who introduces himself at the Vatican, with a ‘gay ID card.’”

No one, especially the Pope, would deny that this Vatican “gay lobby” exists today. Even the National Catholic Reporter admits this.

But, in order to understand the most probable meaning of the quip by Pope Francis one must understand the meaning of “gay lobby.”  The word lobby in Italian (the Italians are driving this “gay lobby” business) has a more negative meaning than the meaning of lobby in America. Fr. John Zuhlsdorf  notes this point when defining this specific meaning of lobby:  “In short it means sinister people who maneuver in the dark and who have leverage enough to make things happen or to prevent them from happening.”

I believe the Pope was having fun with the media. If there is a “gay lobby” they would hardly be so sincere as to “come out” and indicate this on their Vatican I.D.  So how can I talk about them. I like this Pope!


  • Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap

    Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M.Cap., is spiritual director and chaplain for Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity in Denver, as well as being one of the spiritual directors for the Missionaries of Charity in the western United States. He was director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, from 1999 to 2010; a chaplain for Missionaries of Charity at their now-closed AIDS hospice, Seton House, and at Gift of Mary homeless shelter for women in Denver from 1989 to 2008. His articles have been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Faith, Soul Magazine, Pastoral Life, and The Priest. He has also made three series for Mother Angelica’s EWTN: “Crucial Questions,” “Catholic Answers,” and “What Did Vatican II Really Teach?”

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