The pope’s seemingly casual remark was another example of his approachable style, which was on full display during his visit to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day. He carried his own bag onto the plane and traveled around Rio in a small Fiat without being shielded by hordes of security guards. He met with recovering drug addicts in a hospital and condemned inequality in a visit to crime-ridden slums.
He made his comments about gays, signaling that the church looks on them as brothers and sisters, as he fielded questions from reporters for an 80-minute stretch, at times leaning on the back of an airplane seat as if he were just another passenger. With his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, reporters had to submit questions ahead of time, and the Vatican decided which ones the pontiff would answer.
Church insiders say this is the first time in recent memory that a pope has given so much time to reporters — and done so off-script. Francis’s brief papacy has been marked by the candor of his comments on atheism, poverty and now, homosexuality, a topic that was broached when a reporter asked about allegations of corruption within a “gay lobby” of priests at the Vatican.
“When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby,” Francis said, according to a transcript provided by the National Catholic Reporter. He added that “the tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem . . . they’re our brothers.”
The news conference marked the first time that Francis has addressed homosexuality during his four months as pontiff.
His predecessor made remarks that many gay Catholics interpreted as hostile. Even though Benedict called on Catholics to show “great respect for [gay] people,” he oversaw the publication of a church document that called homosexual inclinations “disordered” and called for men with “deep-seated” gay tendencies to be barred from the priesthood. He also said same-sex marriage was an insidious threat to the common good.
So Francis’s remarks were greeted warmly by advocates for gay and lesbian Catholics, who spoke of suddenly feeling welcome instead of being outcasts.
“Pope Francis today uttered some of the most encouraging words a pontiff has ever spoken about gay and lesbian people,” said a statement by Equally Blessed, a coalition of four groups working with LGBT Catholics and their families.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, an activist organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics, said the pope’s words will make many feel accepted by their church for the first time.