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Uberti: Pope Francis signals a subtle shift on gay issues

Pope Francis speaks during a press conference held

Pope Francis speaks during a press conference held aboard the papal flight on his way back to Italy upon departure from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. (July 28, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

Neither Brazilian shanty towns nor airplanes full of reporters seemed to scare Pope Francis on his first major international trip. The new pontiff spoke freely and on the record with journalists for about an hour and a half during his return flight to Rome Monday. That openness alone is unprecedented.

But Francis grabbed headlines when he told reporters during the impromptu news conference that gay priests “shouldn’t be marginalized.”

“If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” he said, when asked to comment on an Italian magazine’s report that a trusted monsignor had engaged in a homosexual affair.

Despite the pope’s candid response, don’t expect the Vatican to adorn St. Peter’s Basilica with rainbow flags any time soon. His remarks, however, do underscore a rhetorical shift for the church in which tone and words convey subtle meaning.

Since his election in March, Francis — the first Jesuit pope — has ushered in a new tone of openness, activism and modesty. His style invigorated as many as 3 million people at the closing mass of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro Sunday, and many believers hope it will do the same for the more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide.

The inner workings of the Holy See have been shrouded in secrecy for centuries, from the allegedly corrupt Vatican Bank to the church’s global sexual abuse scandal. Francis’ great promise is to bring the church closer to individuals of all stripes through local outreach and transparency.

While in Brazil, Francis visited slums to bless the sick and impoverished, shunning his security detail in the process — “I prefer the risks of the madness outside, to be close to the people,” he said. He backed youth protests of excessive government spending and a lack of education, saying, “A young person who does not protest, I do not like.” And he chided clergy members for putting personal gain or wealth ahead of their flocks. All this comes as the pope awaits the results of an internal investigation into whether the Vatican Bank should be reformed or even dissolved.

Francis’ statement Monday by no means signals a sea change in church teachings, which accept homosexuals but not homosexual behavior. Likewise, he has previously spoken out against gay marriage, said the “door is closed” on ordaining women as priests and equated abortion with the death penalty.

With religion, however, such a shift in tone can change an entire conversation. Francis is beginning to do just that, driving discussion away from how to maintain an aging institution toward how to breathe new life into it.