07/30/2013 07:22 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

Pope Francis's Opportunity to Heal


"Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord? You can't marginalize these people."

Pope Francis's words regarding celibate gay priests given during a press conference aboard his plane traveling back to the Vatican from World Youth Day in Brazil has received lots of air play in the media and discussion both in and out of Catholic communities worldwide. Compared to his immediate predecessors, speculation abounds whether this new Pope is signaling a holy see change that could set a new direction for the Church.

I suppose, as the old saying goes, "Everything is relative!," what Francis said appears, at least on the surface, remarkable in context of past Vatican documents and papal statements.

The issue of homosexuality has surfaced often throughout official quarters within the Church. A comparatively modern example includes an official document prepared by the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Religious, approved by Pope John XXII, and released February 2, 1961, though rarely used, stated in part:

"Advancement to religious vows and ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted with evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty, since for them the common life and the priestly ministry would constitute serious dangers." (Published in The Canon Law Digest, Volume V (Bruce Publishing Co, 1963), pages 452 to 486). Though consensual adult homosexuality and pederasty (sometime referred to as "pedophilia") are quite different forms of sexuality, the Church, nonetheless, conflated the two.

According to the 1995 Roman Catholic Church Catechism: "Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are gravely disordered. They are contrary to natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of love [i.e., children]. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved."

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2003, headed by then German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, issued the document, "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons," describing these unions as a "troubling moral and social phenomenon."

During Pope Benedict XVI's end-of-the-year Vatican address in 2008, he asserted that humanity needs to "listen to the language of creation" to realize the intended roles of man and woman. He warned of the "blurring" of the natural distinctions between males and females, and called for humanity to protect itself from self-destruction. The Pope compared behavior beyond traditional heterosexual relations as "a destruction of God's work." In addition, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a New Year's speech in 2011 to diplomats from approximately 180 countries, declaring that marriage for same-sex couples "threatens human dignity and the future of humanity itself."

Back to the issue of ordination, in November 2005, the Congregation for Catholic Education released its "Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders," and approved by Benedict XVI, stating that men with "deep-seated" homosexual tendencies should not be ordained as priests, but those with "transitory problems" could be ordained if they had overcome them for three years. The document continued:

"The church, while deeply respecting the people in question, cannot admit to the seminary and the sacred orders those who practice homosexuality, present deeply rooted homosexual tendencies, or support so-called gay culture."

Deeply respecting? Oh yes, I almost forgot. The Roman Catholic Catechism, in the section quoted above regarding homosexuality, also states that homosexuals "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity," and that "every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."

Well, I must be missing something here. We are "gravely disordered," "afflicted with evil tendencies," our relationships constitute a "troubling moral and social phenomenon," and "a destruction of God's work," which "threatens human dignity and the future of humanity itself," but the Church somehow deeply respects us? It would seem that my definition of "respect" seems at variance with that of the Church.

So, yes, in context, the new Pope's words sound relatively reassuring that gay celibate priests might find welcome during his papacy, though it is commonly known that gay priests already make up a significant percentage. According to a review of the research conducted by Rev. Donald Cozzens, the author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood, the number of gay and bisexual men in U.S. seminaries and in the priesthood range from 25 percent to 50 percent though, of course, no definitive number can be ascertained.

The Church has admitted regret for many of the actions and words of former Popes and of numerous papal decrees. The Rev. Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII, was honored by Jewish leaders around the world for his work in saving large numbers of Jews during the German Holocaust. As Pope, he convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which authorized the declaration Nostra Aetate and approved in 1965 under Pope Paul VI. An article in the document, while certainly not going far enough, stated: "True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today." Moreover, the Church "deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source."

If Pope Francis is true to his word of being "the people's Pope," he will continue in not judging us, but he will also atone in word and in deed as the leader of his mega-Church for the millennial-old atrocities, persecutions, scapegoating and stereotyping, and marginalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. In addition, he must sanction the ordination of women to the priesthood and into the papacy, for exclusive patriarchal institutions have no place in our world.

Maybe then can he truly begin the healing process!