07/30/2013 04:53 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

Pope Francis and Homosexuality: Progress or More of the Same?

It emerged today that Pope Francis made statements about homosexuality to journalists on his plane back from a whirlwind trip through Brazil. Pope Francis commented:

A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will -- well, who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says one must not marginalize these persons, they must be integrated into society. The problem isn't this (homosexual) orientation -- we must be like brothers and sisters. The problem is something else, the problem is lobbying either for this orientation or a political lobby or a Masonic lobby.

Many throughout the Internet saw this as an important step forward for Catholicism and for the rights of LGBTQ. Some saw it as a step forward in the relationship between religion and LGBTQ, while others saw this as a step forward for the Church in its possible acceptance of homosexual priests, which would contravene the previous Pope's position.

Yet, others see reasons to encourage prudence on this conclusion. First off, we don't have the full transcript of the Pope's conversation with the journalists. Even if we did, most outlets reported on what they saw as the more positive part of his speech. Pope Francis does indeed say that he cannot judge homosexuals seeking God, but in that same speech, he also said that it is important to "distinguish between a person who is gay and someone who makes a gay lobby. A gay lobby isn't good." Moreover, historically, Pope Francis has been a staunch supporter of the fight against same-sex marriage. He still sees homosexuality as immoral and in 2010, when Argentina legalized gay marriage, then Cardinal Bergoglio designated the law "a scheme to destroy God's plan" but also viewed it as a "a real and dire anthropological throwback."

This tactic, to differentiate between the act and the person committing the act, has long been a sort of compromise on the part of liberal religious people. They contend that the act itself of homosexuality, and its threats to the holy institution of marriage are abominable, backwards, and regressive, but the individual cannot be judged and deserves our embrace and sympathy. This especially fits in with the Catholic faith which see humans as bundles of temptation unable to overcome their desires without divine grace. Consequently, it makes sense to not blame a person for their desires. However, even this sort of more progressive stance does little for an actual LGBTQ person who see their sexuality as an important part of their identity. Nor does it resolve any theological issues for the religious LGBTQ members in their struggle to reconcile the goodness of God with his word that views homosexuality as an abomination.

However, if we do choose to praise Pope Francis, we shouldn't see this as a divergence from his previous comments, because much of Pope Francis' teachings preach inclusion for those on the margins, whether the poor, or uneducated, and now the sexually marginalized. In fact, as impressive that this statement might be, it fits into his larger as impressive message. Most of his homilies as Pope touch upon this point, but in a speech to other priests, Pope Francis explained his viewpoint eloquently:

We need to "go out", then, in order to experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: to the "outskirts" where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters. It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord: self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live our priestly life going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all.

That being said, I find the words of the Pope worrying for a different reason. From even the most generous reading of his words, it is clear that he will not judge those homosexuals who actually seek God. Pope Francis said nothing about the pain of non-religious homosexuals, or those who simply do not believe in God. Much of these comments demand clarification, but perhaps none more than this point. What of all the LGBTQ seeking acceptance, who feel hatred from the religious right, do they also deserve sympathy and tolerance? What kind of message of tolerance does it send to only embrace those who "seek God?" Does it not encourage discrimination against those who do not?

Despite all of these considerably more academic questions, we should never downplay the power of religion as a social force. Most people, when they hear what the Pope said, will not begin to split hairs about what is or isn't already in the catechism, or what it means for the history of the Church. This approach downplays the Pope as a powerful figure whose opinions actually matter to millions upon millions of people. (3 million people came to the beach in Rio to merely glimpse him and hear his words.) When the Pope chooses to focus on the positive aspects of Catholic thought towards the marginalized, when the bulk of his homilies is about fighting apathy to help the poor and the downtrodden, this in of itself sends a message. When the Pope ends his trip, a trip full of engaging with the poor, and pushing others to help fix the world, with a message of acceptance for homosexuals seeking God, it matters. Even as just a reminder, to choose to speak about it now, and with such passion, will hopefully send a message to millions of Catholics throughout the world, and those of other religious persuasions, that regardless of your beliefs, you will not be marginalized for the genuine choices you make. In a world in which we see daily images streaming in from Russia of violence and discrimination against LGBTQ, I think we can applaud and celebrate a message of tolerance, even if we disagree with it.