How can I describe my response to the following simple words:
“There’s a lot of talk about the gay lobby, but I’ve never seen it on the Vatican ID card … When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.”
Let’s parse this as conservatively as we can. What does it mean to be part of a “gay lobby”? In the context of the curia, I think it means that a group of cardinals or Vatican officials saw their sexual orientation as what defined them as a group, and operated as a faction within the Church’s center. I find that as repellent as any other kind of lobby that places a particular human characteristic ahead of the only quality necessary for a church official: dedication to God, God’s people, and the Church. But even then, Francis is making light of the hysteria: “I’ve never seen it on the Vatican ID card.” Not since John XXIII has a Pope deployed humor quite as easily and effectively as this one.
But so far, so banal – if utterly different than the panicked, tightly-wound homophobia of the last Pontiff. Then the revolutionary part:
“When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.”
The tendency to homosexuality is not the problem. This is a direct rejection of the last Pope and his predecessor. The key letter was issued in 1986 and the key, horrifying directive issued in 2005 barring all gay men from the priesthood – however they conduct themselves and regardless of their gifts and sincerity. Here’s Ratzinger’s CDF statement on homosexuality, which walked back the previous, much more inclusive, position taken in 1975.
In the discussion which followed the publication of the  Declaration, however, an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.
This is the new doctrine Ratzinger introduced into Catholicism: that gay people are uniquely inclined toward an intrinsic moral evil, that there is something inherently immoral about us, that we are in a special class of sub-humans, because our loves – when expressed fully with our bodies as well as souls – are intrinsically evil. This doctrine was so contrary to the Gospels, so callous, and so grotesquely unjust – barring any gay man from entering seminaries solely because of something he cannot change – that it was, for me, one of the low points of my spiritual life in the church. Not only was the Pope attacking the souls of an entire class of human beings, he was deeming them unfit for priestly authority. Child rapists could be tolerated; sincere, celibate gay priests were intrinsically disordered unlike any other group in society. I wrote on this page at the time:
Some of the basic principles of the Catholic faith – treating each individual as equally worthy in God’s eyes, judging people by what they do, not who they are – are being violated by this policy. The astonishing work of gay priests across the centuries and across the globe is being denied and stigmatized and ignored. This is a huge stain on the church – reminiscent of its long, terrible history of anti-Semitism.
And so in a few off-the-cuff remarks, Pope Francis returned the Church’s leadership to the spirit and love of the Gospels. This does not mean a change in the doctrine that all non-procreative non-marital sexual expression – from masturbation to foreplay to homosexual or contracepted sex – is immoral. But what it does is explicitly end the Vatican’s demonization and marginalization of gay people made in the image of God, people who have served the Church from its very beginnings, in ways large and small.
It says a lot about the cramped, fearful, nit-picking dead-end of the last Pontiff that simply asserting human dignity should bring such joy. But it has been clear for a while now that the Holy Spirit and the intercession of Saint Francis are opening the windows of the church again – so that sunlight and transparency and simplicity can flood the previously darkened rooms of a retreating reactionary Vatican.
We have a Pope. By God, we have a Pope.