Tone and word choice are key in Pope’s remarks on gay priests

By Mark Brown

Proving again that what you say is often less important than how you say it, Pope Francis’ conciliatory remarks on the subject of gay priests gave renewed hope Monday to gay Catholics and their families that the church still has a place for them in its heart.

“If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” the pope told reporters during an impromptu press conference aboard an airplane on his way back from a week long visit to Brazil.

The pope’s comments did not stray from official church teaching that homosexual acts are a sin.

But by simply striking a friendlier tone, even using the word “gay” instead of “homosexual,” the 76-year-old Argentine pontiff recast the discussion.

For those of us who had come to believe the Catholic Church was all about making such judgments, the pope’s “who am I to judge” comment was at the very least an eye opener.

For gay Catholics who have become accustomed to being beaten down by the public statements of their church leaders, the pope’s words were borderline remarkable.

“I have to say it stirred my heart,” said veteran Chicago gay rights activist Rick Garcia, who also happens to be Catholic. “Finally we have somebody who gets it.”

The pope’s words also were in contrast to the latest church news here in Chicago, where a threatened cutoff of church funding to community organizations over gay marriage caused a group of high profile Catholics over the weekend to urge Cardinal Francis George to back off. The community groups are part of an immigrant rights coalition that ran afoul of church hierarchy by endorsing the legalization of same-sex marriages in Illinois.

Let’s be real. Nothing in the pope’s remarks would lead one to believe the Catholic Church is going to soften its opposition to gay rights in the foreseeable future, if ever.

Yet the church’s usual hardline approach — exemplified by its threat to cut off funding to the community groups — becomes all the more incongruous when its spiritual leader is setting a pastoral, healing tone.

“We shouldn’t marginalize people for this,” the pope went on to say. “They must be integrated into society.”

Garcia said he read Pope Francis’ remarks over and over again Monday to make sure he understood the proper context and nuance.

But whichever way he sliced it, there was no avoiding the conclusion that this was totally unlike anything he’d heard from the Vatican in several decades.

“He was just so fair about what he said,” Garcia said.

According to the Associated Press, Francis’ comments came in response to a question about reports in Italian news media that a group of gay clergymen — a so-called “gay lobby” — exerts undue influence on Vatican policy.

“A lot is written about this ‘gay lobby.’ I still haven’t found anyone at the Vatican who has ‘gay’ on his business card,” the pope said. “You have to distinguish between the fact that someone is gay and the fact of being in a lobby.”

The Wall Street Journal reported he added: “The problem isn’t having this orientation. The problem is making a lobby.”

The reporters interpreted the pope’s remarks as him having no objection to a priest being gay — as long as he remains celibate.

I’ve read five different accounts of the press conference, and the quotes are different in all of them, which I attribute in part to the fact the pope was speaking in Italian.

But on “who am I to judge?” there was widespread agreement. And you can’t get much more non-judgmental than that.

Garcia said he found it a significant shift from the Catholic Church’s usual legalistic approach to gays that can be hurtful to “something very pastoral.”

Martin Grochala, a longtime activist with Dignity Chicago, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian Catholics, also said he found the pope’s comments “promising.”

“It was good to see that he spoke about gay people in a neutral if not positive tone. He talked about us as people,” Grochala said.

“While I don’t think we’re going to have radical change in the church, it’s nice to have someone in there who can talk to you,” he added.

Equally Blessed, a national coalition of organizations working on behalf of the gay community, released a statement saying the pope “had set a great example for Catholics everywhere.”

“Catholic leaders who continue to belittle gays and lesbians can no longer claim that their inflammatory remarks represent the sentiments of the pope,” the group stated.

That’s a good start.

Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, July 29, 2013.

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