It's refreshing when a man whose job titles include supreme pontiff and vicar of Christ says, "Well, who am I to judge?"
The news wires have been buzzing since Pope Francis gave an informal interview to journalists on his airplane Monday and said: "A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will - well, who am I to judge him?" He went on to say that homosexuals are "our brothers and sisters" who "should not be marginalized."
Did the pope just soften the church's teaching on homosexuality? Not really. And even if he was somehow trying to do that, stray papal remarks don't unwind the dogma of a church. But his words do mean something. And, unfortunately, the big, dumb, prefab debate over what Francis meant will obscure some of the more interesting questions about his papacy.
The "Who? Me, judge?" quote came while his holiness was questioned about a "gay lobby" in the Vatican - a clique rumored to mostly protect each other's interests rather than to advance an agenda.
It's likely that reporters and the pontiff also had in mind Fr. Ricca, who was recently appointed to a temporary position at the Vatican Bank. Depending on your view, Ricca has been exposed or smeared in Italian papers for being involved with men, and it has also been suggested his career has been saved from scandal by powerful friends in the alleged "gay lobby." Conservative and traditionalist Catholics have been anxious to point out that there's no substantive change - no dogmatic evolution - signaled in Pope Francis' remarks at all. They have a point.
When Francis said that gays should not be marginalized, he was referring to the church's Catechism. His whole statement as quoted seems to be a gentle paraphrase of paragraph 2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which has been in place since 1994: "They [homosexuals] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition."
Translation: Even if you are attracted to members of the same sex, so long as you are sincerely trying to live by the strict moral standards of ancient faith of the One True Church, Francis isn't going to judge you. Not exactly the long-desired capitulation of the Roman Church to modern sexual mores.
But what people are really responding to in this "Who am I?" quote is its "no big deal, man" spirit. The popular image of the church is that its fustian prelates are just plain uncomfortable even acknowledging homosexuality. Francis projects the serene confidence of an Episcopalian with four aces.
Intentionally or not, his holiness has called into question the official (and mostly ignored) policy of the church set by the predecessor he is anxious to canonize, Pope John XXIII, who barred gays from the priesthood in 1961: "Advancement to religious vows and ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted with the evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty, since for them the common life and the priestly ministry would constitute serious danger." But while conservatives bleat "it's not news," and liberals cheer "Good! More now, please" a lot of other interesting things from this interview and from Francis' pontificate have been overlooked.
For one thing, Pope Francis not only touted the impending canonizations of Pope John XIII and Pope John Paul II, but also the "causes" of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I. Are we seriously to believe that every recent pope was a saint, even when the church has experienced unbelievable contraction and criminal scandal under their pontificates? Seems like the Church needs an "Advocatus Diaboli" again to point out the faults of candidates for sainthood. I'd be happy to oblige.
Reports are also coming out that Francis has, in principle, reversed the one major effort of his still-breathing predecessor, which was to give liberty to all priests to say the traditional Latin Mass, which had been practically suppressed after 1970. Benedict's ideal was that priests should be able to choose between the traditional and the new mass, in hopes that the beauty and dignity of the old might counterbalance the banality of the new.
On Monday, it was reported that the Vatican has decreed that one religious order's priests are now forbidden from saying the Old Mass unless they get explicit permission. The ruling reflects the pope's style; Francis personally embraces a "strip-the-altars" mode of worship, which, of course, no one asks about.
Is the policy restricting the Traditional Mass returning for the rest of the church? Was Benedict wrong? According to reports at the conclave, Cardinal Bergoglio was elected pope because he promised to reform the Curia, the group of clerical bureaucrats who run the Vatican. While generating a million headlines about gay priests on his plane he admitted that on the reform front, "It's true that I haven't done a lot yet." That's putting it lightly.
Even by Italy's standards, Pope Francis has let the discredited members of the previous administration hang on for a long time. In previous interviews Pope Francis has cast all responsibility for reform of the Vatican and its bank on committees he has appointed. He frequently reminds us that he isn't interested in administrative details.
Maybe someone in the all-too-credulous Vatican press corps could press him about that?
Dougherty is national correspondent for the American Conservative. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine and other outlets.