Even if Francis’s olive branch toward homosexuals in the church falls short of a shift in substance, his words represent a major break with the church’s long history of deep-seated social conservatism. While the Church still regards homosexual acts as sinful, no previous pope has offered a “who am I to judge?” response to the question of what to do with gay priests.
Indeed, under the reign on Francis’s immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, top church officials frequently blamed gay priests for the terrible sexual abuse crisis afflicting the church worldwide. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana even suggested the church could benefit from the some of the anti-gay prejudice seen in his country, echoing similar sentiments expressed by churchmen in the U.S. In this context, Francis’s comments about gay priests mark him as a very different leader who may be heralding the end of an era deep and abiding intolerance of homosexuality. (During his flight home Francis also said that the church needed a new theological perspective on the role and status of women. “Let us remember,” he said, “that Mary is more important than the bishop apostles, so women in the church are more important than bishops and priests.”)
In speaking so boldly, Francis risks alienating Catholics in the industrialized West who have supported conservative theology, doctrine, and leadership. This significant minority is energized by the fight against abortion and resistance to those who would welcome both women priests and an end to mandatory celibacy for clerics.