First, the good news. Pope Francis is already showing himself to be a winsome, endearing and inspiring successor to St. Peter. His trip to Brazil catapulted him to rock-star status, with his care for the poor and the dispossessed, his willingness to engage the throngs with little regard for his security and even with his crowd-pleasing offer of a song on the guitar. This is no formal and aloof bishop but rather a man of and for the people. Justice is on his mind and his lips.
But it was a question he was asked on the flight back to Rome, about homosexuality, that has come to define the trip and has sparked hope that the Roman Catholic Church might be softening its stance on being gay. (Even using the word gay, which Francis did in English while otherwise speaking Italian, is unprecedented for a Pope.)
Is there anything new in what he had to say? Well, yes, in terms of tone. And this is no small thing. Francis’ immediate predecessors called homosexuality an “intrinsic moral evil” and branded homosexuals as “intrinsically disordered.” Instead of mirroring those blanket condemnations, Francis offered kindness and compassion. Then, in an act of genuine humility, he asked, “Who am I to judge?” It is telling that this rhetorical question got so much attention, since Jesus, who Christians believe was the perfect revelation of God, warned, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Yet previous Popes have shown no hesitation in being judgmental about homosexuality. This change in tone is significant.