Pope Francis has not broken with his predecessor and set a new tone for the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude toward homosexuality, contend some Catholic commentators who have responded to media coverage of the Argentine pontiff’s remarks in a surprise press conference on his return flight from Brazil.

“As usual,” writes National Catholic Register blogger Jimmy Akin, “the press is painting a false picture by contrasting the ‘good’ Francis and the ‘bad’ Benedict.”

Francis, who held an 80-minute Q&A session after initially saying he would not speak with media on the flight, was asked about the so-called “gay lobby” within the Vatican and an appointee who allegedly engaged in homosexual acts.

Widespread reports have focused only on Francis’ statement that if “someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

USA Today declared in a headline: “Pope Francis says he won’t ‘judge’ gay priests”

But Akin insists the remarks need to be understood in context.

“Taking his statements together, what emerges is a portrait of individuals who have same-sex attraction but who nevertheless accept the Lord and have goodwill, as opposed to working to advance a pro-homosexual ideology,” he writes.

The pope, concluding his first foreign trip, led the closing Mass at World Youth Day on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro Sunday before more than 2 million people. In his homily, he declared the Gospel is for everyone.

“Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away,” he said.

In its story about the in-flight news conference Monday, the National Catholic Register reported Francis “reiterated the Church’s belief that having a homosexual orientation is not sinful but engaging in homosexual acts is.”

The pontiff reportedly said:

“When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby.

“If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them?

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says one must not marginalize these persons, they must be integrated into society. The problem isn’t this (homosexual) orientation –we must be like brothers and sisters. The problem is something else, the problem is lobbying either for this orientation or a political lobby or a Masonic lobby.

“They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.”

Akin says the media have been trying to make unfavorable comparisons to Benedict’s instructional document saying that those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies should not be ordained to the priesthood.

Francis didn’t contradict the document, he writes, and neither are any of his remarks “contrary to the approach Benedict took during his pontificate.”

He points out that Benedict himself, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was the signer of the letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons and the follow-up document on non-discrimination regarding homosexual persons.

More than 2 million were at Copacabana Beach in Rio for the papal Mass Sunday

‘Drastic shift’

However, the self-described progressive group Catholics United concluded from Francis’ remarks Monday that he has “drastically shifted the moral priorities of the Vatican.”

The group’s executive director, James Salt, said Francis made “a call for the acceptance of gay priests.”

He called it “a direct repudiation of the backward beliefs of many ultra-conservative ideologues in the Church.”

“For years, there has been a crisis of leadership in the faith, with members of the hierarchy promoting highly misplaced priorities,” Salt said. “This statement on gay people, while largely symbolic, is a big step in the right way.”

As a noted opponent of the “gay-rights agenda,” evangelical Protestant attorney and activist Scott Lively is no progressive, but he agreed that the pope’s remarks represent a shift.

“Previous popes have shown mercy to homosexuals by acknowledging that mere temptation to sin is not itself sin, and therefore they advocated tolerance for celibates who struggle with same-sex attraction,” he said. “But Francis seems to have crossed a critical theological boundary and affirmed homosexuality as a legitimate basis for defining one’s identity.”

Lively argued, citing the biblical book of Romans, that God “does not want us to identify ourselves by our sin, but to be ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds.'”

He asserted “sexual orientation theory is an invention of the modern homosexual movement to advance the false and anti-biblical belief that homosexuality is innate and unchangeable.”

He called that belief “the essential conceptual undergirding to ‘gay theology.'”

Exploding heads

Catholic writer Elizabeth Scalia, who blogs as “The Anchoress,” suspects Francis’ remarks might have been lost in the translation from Italian to English.

She writes that there are “lots of exploding heads on the Internet today” thanks to headlines like USA Today’s.

“It is unfortunate that our Holy Father does not use English, because it leaves me wondering about translation or, in the case of this story, a reporter’s own misunderstanding of Catholic teaching,” she writes. “Did he say gay clergymen should be ‘forgiven’? That’s doubtful … and wouldn’t make sense, because it presumes that gays sin simply by being gay, which the church does not teach.”

Asked for his reaction by the Wall Street Journal, church historian Alberto Melloni said Francis “is showing a deep respect for the human condition as it is instead of approaching things in a doctrinal way.”

National Review editor-at-large Kathryn Jean Lopez, who as a committed Catholic writes frequently about the church, says in a blog post today at National Review’s The Corner that media seem to be missing the context.

She says a reading of notes of the conversation from John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter doesn’t indicate to her that Francis has broken away from Benedict on the issue of homosexuality and the priesthood.

Lopez compares Francis’ remark to a “woefully misunderstood” remark about condoms made by Pope Benedict in a plane ride to Africa.

“And here we are again!” she writes.

Lopez notes that in the press conference, Francis had been talking about the subject of divine mercy and redemption in regard to his appointment of Msgr. Battista Ricca as secretary of the commission of cardinals that oversees the Vatican bank.

A preliminary investigation of alleged homosexual behavior, the pope said, found “there was nothing.”

“I’d like to add that many times we seem to seek out the sins of somebody’s youth and publish them,” Francis continued. “We’re not talking about crimes, which are something else. The abuse of minors, for instance, is a crime. But one can sin and then convert, and the Lord both forgives and forgets. We don’t have the right to refuse to forget … it’s dangerous.”

He said the “theology of sin is important.”

“St. Peter committed one of the greatest sins, denying Christ, and yet they made him pope! Think about that,” the pontiff said.

Lopez says that since becoming pope, Francis “has been incessantly talking about divine mercy.”

“And he has been indicting all Catholics – and in no small way people who work at the Vatican – with his morning homilies and his words in Rio this weekend, calling us out for holding back from God, for our lack of authenticity, for our inconsistency with God.”

In light of that and his emphasis on fatherhood and the fatherhood of priests, Lopez writes, “it’s hard to see anything he said this morning about homosexuality as a rift, but rather part of and consistent with a broader, all-encompassing renewal.”

Lopez emphasizes that “fundamentally, he was talking about mercy” and didn’t change anything Benedict said about men who are training for the priesthood.

She says the Roman Catholic Church’s “teachings on sexual morality are important parts of a bigger picture that can uplift and redeem men.”

“Missing that bigger picture misses a treasure – the beauty of the fullness of Catholicism – and thereby impoverishes our debates and our lives,” she writes. “The pope’s apostolic journey to Rio, a pilgrimage of prayer, sacrament, sacrifice, and challenge, has unfortunately been reduced to what he didn’t quite actually say about sex on the plane.”

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