Pope Francis has opened questions of both style and substance with his first press conference, which he himself initiated and conducted for a papally unprecedented 80 minutes on July 29 aboard the flight carrying him back to Rome after a week-long visit to Brazil. The Brazil tour, the Pope’s first overseas visit as pontiff, had itself attracted worldwide attention, and had among other things involved a mass attended by an estimated three million people on Copacabana beach, but the Pope’s airborne comment — “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” — has predictably eclipsed much else about Francis’s first few months in office. The pontiff also reminded his audience of the Church’s 1986 catechism, which requires that gays must not be marginalised but instead “integrated into society.” The Pope’s unpretentious style and inclusive tone were in keeping with his general manner, and his use of the word “gay” rather than “homosexual” is a first for the Catholic Church. Above all, this way of restating the current position constitutes a marked shift in tenor from that of the pontiff’s predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2005 blocked men of “homosexual tendencies” from entering the priesthood, and it is a welcome development.
To be sure, the Pope has not changed the Church’s substantive positions. The existing catechism calls Christians who are homosexuals “to a chaste life,” and holds that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”; clearly, there is no foreseeable question of allowing same-sex marriage. Secondly, the prohibition on the ordination of women stands. Therefore, on gays in particular the Pope may be conveying a more complex message, one intended as much for the Vatican as for the rest of the Catholic congregation. In his press conference, the pontiff, albeit jokingly, denied the existence of a gay lobby within the Vatican, but even senior Catholic insiders accept that there are homosexual relationships among some of the clergy, although they do not reject the prohibition. The Pope’s tone may well signal a willingness to acknowledge certain ground realities, such as the 2008 United States federal government survey finding that 98 per cent of sexually active American Catholic women over 18 had used some form of contraception banned by the Vatican, and the finding that in 1995 the figure for women in a union who used contraception in Catholic-majority Spain was 87.2 per cent. While there is no predicting future Catholic doctrine, His Holiness is making the rest of the world, and very probably his Vatican colleagues too, think.