Things Are Happening, Maybe
I will disclose my biases up front--I am an unabashed fanboy of Pope Francis. He has done and said everything I could have reasonably hoped for in the new pope, from his rejection of the over-the-top material trappings of the Papacy to his low-key demeanor to his efforts to reach out to other religions and disaffected groups. I love all of it.
In that context, today has been an interesting news day for Pope Francis.
First, he gave an impromptu news conference to the journalists traveling with him in the back of the plane on the way home from World Youth Day in Rio. By all reports, it was 100% unstructured and off-the-cuff. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, probably the top US reporter on church topics, provided a summary of the conversation.
The headline-grabber was the Pope's comments on homosexuals.
Two pieces of context are needed here. In 2005, Pope Benedict signed an order which officially established as church policy that homosexual men are unsuitable for ordination to the priesthood. Prior to this (or, really, prior to the beginning of the sex abuse crisis) the position was that sexual orientation did not impact one's ability to be a priest, since all priests are required to be celibate. Despite this ruling, everyone knows that many priests are gay, and it is a standard trope of the more conspiracy minded conservative commentators that these gay priests form a "fifth column" within the Church. These conspiracy theories seemed to become more substantive in the run-up to Benedict's resignation, where reports surfaced of a "Gay Mafia" that was engaging in various nefarious activities.
So, Pope Francis's comments today are significant for two reasons. One, he seems to downplay the whole concept of the "Gay Mafia"--"There's a lot of talk about the gay lobby, but I've never seen it on the Vatican ID card." But then he drops this: 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.
Now, he doesn't explicitly say, as some are reporting, that he is OK with gay men being priests. But, since the "lobby" is supposed to consist primarily of clergy, it is at least a reasonable reading of what he means--he is distinguishing between gay priests who are part of the "lobby" and other gay priests. So, it could be nothing, or it could represent a return to the status quo prior to Benedict.
The second comment relates to divorced and remarried Catholics. Before gay rights, abortion, and even contraception were front-and-center, the fact that the Catholic Church will not recognize a second marriage as valid (save for going through the complex annulment process) has been a third-rail of Catholic social teaching. The fact that the Pope is apparently setting the groundwork for some sort of policy change is very unexpected. In purely practically terms, this is bigger than the gay comments--there are far more divorced Catholics than there are gay men who are looking at the priesthood, or gay men in general. I think this is a real bombshell.
The third story does not come from Pope Francis's comments, but from a bit of inside baseball in the Vatican--a small, new religious order called the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate got the smack-down. What was notable about the FFI is that they are the only general-purpose religious order to require its members to say only the old Latin Mass as opposed to the post-Vatican II vernacular Mass. Or more accurately, they used to be the only order to do so--the Vatican's decree says now they must say the modern Mass, and can only say the Latin Mass with permission.
This is significant, because it is hard to interpret this as anything but a roll-back of Pope Benedict's efforts to bring back the Latin Mass. The hardcore Latin crowd was nervous about Francis from Day One and freaked out when he declined much of the regalia of the Pope immediately after his election. This move has only increased their freak-out level (if you would like a sense of their state of mind, you can look here).
So, nothing of actual substance, but signs of substantive things to come. Very interesting.