Pope Francis surprised the Catholic faithful Monday by saying the Roman Catholic Church shouldn't marginalize gay priests, saying: "Who am I to judge?"
The comments followed one of the largest papal Masses in recent history over the weekend, when the pope told an estimated 3 million people on the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro to spread the Gospel to "the fringes of society."
The newly appointed leader of the Roman Catholic Church then took to his papal airplane, where he told a group of reporters on the long flight back to Rome that gay Catholic priests "should not be marginalized" in the church.
"If a person is gay, seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" the pontiff reportedly said, in response to a question about a rumored "gay lobby" in the Vatican. He did denounce illegitimate influence on the church.
The comments prompted worldwide speculation about whether the pope, known as a staunch opponent of gay rights, was signaling a slightly softer tone or a more dramatic shift on a longstanding hot-button issue for the church.
The church teaches that homosexual acts are sinful, but simply being gay — if celibate — is not. It has also been a strong and vocal opponent of efforts to legalize same-sex marriages around the world, including in Maryland.
Under Pope Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, gay men were to be blocked from becoming priests. Pope Benedict resigned in February.
The church is eager to bring Catholics back to the church, and reframing faith conversations away from denunciations and toward ideas like mercy is a strategy that the pope favors, said Chad C. Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington who teaches on the papacy.
"The message of mercy, I think, is one he is sounding out on every single issue that the culture has identified as one it rejects the church's teachings on," Pecknold said. "What Francis wants to say is, 'Let's talk.' "
The pope offered his thoughts in a remarkably open news conference in response to questions about rumors of a "lobby" of gay priests seeking to influence the Vatican. He said he disapproved of any such lobby or influence, but distinguished influence-seekers from priests who might happen to be gay.
Pecknold said it was important to consider that context when reading the pope's comments, but he also said the pontiff would have been aware that his comments to international journalists about homosexuality would have been viewed in a broader context.
"We're going to hear this over and over and over again," Pecknold said. "The way in which Francis wants to initiate a conversation, the way in which he wants to invite a conversation, is through this message of mercy."
Sean Caine, a spokesman for Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, said the pope "spoke with compassion and understanding while at the same time reaffirming the teaching and practice of the Church."
According to a Pew Research Center poll analysis this year, there are about 75 million Catholics in the United States, which has the fourth-largest Catholic population in the world. The country with the largest is Brazil.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore includes about 500,000 Catholics.
Some saw more promise in the pope's message.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a "gay-positive" Catholic ministry in Maryland, said he saw the pontiff's words as "a major departure" from his predecessors, even if they didn't mark a shift in the church's official stance on homosexuality.
"Official Catholicism talks about homosexuality in the language of sin and in the language of human dignity, and his predecessors have emphasized the language of sin," DeBernardo said. "What this shows is he wants to emphasize the language of dignity.
"That's a major step forward," DeBernardo said. "It's a step that we've been waiting for and hoping for for a long time."
Outside Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption after a midday Mass on Monday, several churchgoers said they supported a more progressive stance on gays in the church.
They also said they supported the pope's mentioning a broader role for women in the church's administration and his overall mission of reaching out to young people in Brazil, where his papal Mass was in honor of World Youth Day.
"That was a perfect forum for him to share those sentiments," said Tony Valenti, 59, who was visiting the basilica from New Jersey with his family. "The more people he tries to bring back into the church, the better."
Valenti's mother, Catherine Valenti, 89, agreed.
"The way he is talking to [young people] is going to do a lot of good for the faith," she said.
Maria Torres of Lutherville said women should be granted a larger role in the church — perhaps more so than the "deep theology of women" envisioned by the pope, who reaffirmed the church's ban on women in the priesthood.
"It should be a bigger-tent church because women do a lot of work within the church," she said.
Theresa Carper, 59, of Hunt Valley, who described herself as a very conservative wife in a traditional marriage of more than 40 years, said she also approved of the pope's messages from Brazil.
"What a step in the right direction," she said of the message of mercy for gay priests. "Who are we to judge anyone?"
Blake Cass, 29, who works in the basilica's gift shop and lives in the city's Lake Montebello neighborhood, said after Mass that he was having a hard time understanding what the pope's comments would mean for the church and for Catholics.
"It's hard for me to sum up a lot of my thoughts," he said. "I think the church does need to be about forgiveness."
Neither Cardinal Donald Wuerl, head of the Archdiocese of Washington, nor Bishop W. Francis Malooly, head of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington — who represent Marylanders in the Washington metropolitan area and along the Eastern Shore, respectively — commented Monday.
The Maryland Catholic Conference, which has fought against same-sex marriage in the state, declined to comment on the pope's remarks, deferring comment to the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The pontiff also has been outspoken against gay marriage, particularly in his native Argentina.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, who often cited his Catholic faith during a political evolution that took him from supporting civil unions for same-sex couples to backing same-sex marriage legislation in the state, declined through a spokeswoman to comment.
According to the Pew poll, about 51 percent of U.S. Catholics said they would like to see Pope Benedict's replacement "maintain traditional positions," while about 46 percent said they want him to "move in new directions."
As of 2012, the poll found, more than half of U.S. Catholics supported same-sex marriage, up from about 40 percent in favor in 2001. The shift is largely due to changing attitudes among younger generations, results show.
DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry said he sees the pope's willingness to offer an olive branch to gay priests as a sure sign of positive change.
"What I think it shows is that he is willing to dialogue with the broader society, and that's something his predecessors were not willing to do. There was just stony silence all the time when there could have been discussions going on," DeBernardo said.
"Change in the church is always evolutionary, it's never revolutionary. It happens in small steps."
Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article.
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