ABOARD THE PAPAL AIRCRAFT -- Pope Francis reached out to gays Monday, saying in a remarkably open and wide-ranging news conference that he won't judge priests for their sexual orientation.
"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" Francis said as he returned from his first foreign trip. "We shouldn't marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society."
Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, signed a document in 2005 that said men who had deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. Francis was much more conciliatory in his first news conference as pope, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.
The comments did not signal any change in church policy. Catholic teaching still holds that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered." But they indicated a shift in tone under Francis' young papacy and an emphasis on a church that is more inclusive and merciful rather than critical and disciplinary.
Gay leaders were buoyed by Francis' nonjudgmental approach, saying changing the tone was progress in itself -- although for some, the encouragement was tempered by Francis's talk of gay clergy's "sins."
"Basically, I'm overjoyed at the news," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the U.S.-based New Ways Ministry, a group promoting justice and reconciliation for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people and the wider church community.
"For decades now, we've had nothing but negative comments about gay and lesbian people coming from the Vatican," DeBernardo said in a telephone interview from Maryland.
The largest U.S. gay rights group, Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that the pope's remarks "reflect a hopeful change in tone." Still, said Chad Griffin, the HRC president, as long as gay individuals, couples and youth alike "are told in churches big and small that their lives and their families are disordered and sinful because of how they were born -- how God made them -- then the church is sending a deeply harmful message."
Francis also said he wanted a greater role for women in the church, though he insisted that they cannot become priests.
He was funny and candid during the 82 minutes he spent with journalists on board the plane returning from Brazil. He didn't dodge a single question, and even thanked the journalist who raised allegations contained in an Italian news magazine that one of his trusted monsignors was involved in a gay tryst.
Francis said he investigated the allegations according to canon law and found nothing to back them up.