Pope Francis reached out to gays, saying he won't judge priests for their sexual orientation in a news conference Monday. (Associated Press)

Pope Francis has been widely lauded for his comments suggesting greater tolerance of gay clergy in the Catholic Church. After spending a week in Brazil, the new pontiff spoke openly with reporters on the plane back to the Vatican about some of the church’s problems. “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” he said of gay clergymen.

Jena McGregor points out the obvious answer to his question and comments on Francis’s remarkable style of leadership:

You are, Pope Francis, the man who drew an estimated three million people to a Rio de Janeiro beach on Sunday. The man whom the Roman Catholic Church gives “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” You are the leader of the Catholic Church, the successor of Saint Peter, the head of the Vatican. If anyone is in a position to judge – rightly or wrongly – it might be you.

But the Pope’s comment about not judging gay clergymen may just be the best example yet of the humble leadership style that has captivated millions. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis said in response to a question from a reporter. “We shouldn’t marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society.”

In the less than six months since Pope Francis was elected leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, he has repeatedly made symbolic gestures of humility. He has washed the feet of a Muslim woman. He has shunned the papal apartments, paid his own hotel bill and invited homeless people to dinner at the Vatican. He has dressed simply, refused to sit on an elevated platform after being elected, and chosen the name Francis, an homage to the saint most known for his devotion to the poor. On this most recent trip to Brazil, he toted his own carry-on, opted against the popemobile and visited some of Brazil’s poorest and most dangerous slums.

But in asking the question “who am I to judge?” the Pope sends perhaps the strongest signal so far that his humble approach to the papacy is not just about a disciplined man trying to send a message with his simple way of life. He truly does not seem to see himself as having more of a right than others to pass judgment. He does not see leadership as being about mandating decrees or beliefs, but as being about modeling behavior and accepting others.

Jena McGregor

Brad Hirschfield also notes that the pope’s question might have been surprising, coming from him:

Who is he to judge? He’s the pope. Isn’t that part of his job?! He is the leader of a millennia old institution – one steeped in legal tradition and religious norms. How could he not judge? If not him, then who?

Has Pope Francis become some kind of relativist? A post-modern paralytic unable to take a stand when asked what many would deem to be a straightforward question, and one with what many more would assume is an equally straightforward answer? Hardly.

What Pope Francis did in answering as he did, was to distinguish between making a judgment and being judgmental.

Far from being unable or unwilling to make a judgment, Pope Francis, in answering the reporter’s question as he did, made any number of judgments. And while they depart from, or even contradict the teaching of his predecessor on gay priests, for example, the judgments Pope Francis made are actually not terribly surprising — at least not so surprising when one views them in the context of his past words and deeds.

This is the pope who spoke of the spiritual dignity of atheist reporters covering him in Rome, washed and kissed the feet of HIV/AIDS patients and prisoners, and did these things in the name of his Catholic faith. In fact, the pope’s response on the plane continues his trademark combination of deep humility, concern for marginalized and vulnerable populations, and total commitment to the traditions of his church.

Holding that particular “trinity” together is no small feat, especially in today’s world, where those who are willing to make judgments often do so rather judgmentally, and those who resist harsh judgmentalism, often find it difficult to make any judgments at all. The ability to exercise judgment without becoming judgmental is fast becoming something of this pope’s trademark, so it should really come as no great surprise that he answered as he did.

Brad Hirschfield

Patrick Hornbeck praises Francis’s choice of words:

History is littered with epithets used abusively by some groups toward others, words which have so wounded souls that today they are considered not just inappropriate, but hateful and malicious. Some groups have been able to reclaim the words of their abusers, while for others, the indignity of being called—of being reduced to—inescapably pejorative language can be rectified only when those slurs fall, silent, into disuse.

All this reminds us that language has the power to wound, as well as the power to heal. It has become a basic rule of civility to name people with the words by which they wish to be called. This has come to be seen as a powerful way of respecting the identities and, fundamentally, the dignity of others. It was this rule that Pope Francis put calmly into practice.

For decades, Vatican documents have almost unfailingly refused to refer to gay men and women as anything other than “homosexual persons.” These documents have condemned as sinful their “homosexual acts” and labeled their “inclination” an “objective disorder,” while also maintaining that they “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

Few gay men and lesbians choose to call themselves “homosexual persons”; perhaps even fewer would describe their sexual behaviors as “homosexual acts.” Much of the reason is that within large segments of the LGBT community, the words “homosexual” and “homosexuality” appear to have clinical, pathological overtones. The word “homosexual” made its debut in English in 1892, in a translation of a German work that included homosexuality on a list of varieties of sexual perversion. “Heterosexual” appeared around the same time, but originally referred to another kind of mental disorder, one where “a patient exhibited both male erotic attractions to females and female erotic attractions to males.” It was only later that it assumed its modern meaning, although what we now refer to as heterosexuality has been privileged for much longer than that.

Patrick Hornbeck

The pope also said that people have a responsibility to forgive and forget others’ sins, a lesson that Washington could benefit from, writes Ezra Klein:

During the interview, the pope was asked about an Italian newspaper’s allegations that one of his monsignors was engaged in a gay tryst. Those allegations, the pope replied, concerned matters of sin — not matters of crime, as in the sexual abuse of children. And when someone sins and then confesses those sins, the pope said, God both forgives and forgets.

“We don’t have the right to not forget,” he said.

It’s easy to applaud the pope’s comments on sexual orientation — particularly if you’re someone who long ago stopped judging people based on their sexual orientation, or perhaps never did it in the first place.

His comments on forgetting the sins of others is harder — in both directions. On the one hand, it accepts — as Catholic teaching continues to accept — the idea that a consensual gay tryst is a sin. Pope Francis’s more tolerant regime has its limits.

But on the other, it sets a bar for mercy that few of us reach. We live in an age where your neighbor’s past indiscretions are only a Google search away — and they’re only a Google search away forever. Washington is particularly obsessed with digging up decades-old indiscretions and embarrassment in order to humiliate people running for office or serving in government.

Ezra Klein

In addition, the pope addressed the role of women in the church. “The role of women doesn’t end just with being a mother and with housework,” he said. Those words were especially encouraging for Ashley McGuire:

Don’t get me wrong – the media wouldn’t let you believe it – but the church is teeming with women who love their faith, love their church, love priests like brothers, love their bishops, and especially love the pope. We don’t sit around and wring our hands about “female ordination” or wish we could use birth control or wonder why the church tells us not to sleep around.

That being said, this is a difficult and confusing time to be a woman living against the cultural grain. Many of us feel authentically torn between professional goals and vocational aspirations to be loving and present wives and mothers reigning over stable and happy homes. And many of us want to play a role in the church but just aren’t quite sure how. We can find a smattering of contradicting perspectives on these topics, but when we look to the church herself, we can feel a bit lost.

Pope Francis is absolutely right that a list of what we can and cannot do is insufficient. It is also un-Catholic. Our faith is not a list of yeses and nos but a catalogue of answers to the whys and what fors. And Catholic women would benefit greatly from a refreshed and expanded exploration of a woman’s role in the faith, in society, and in the family that begins with woman herself.

Ashley McGuire

See images of the pope’s visit to Brazil below.