On his flight to Rome from Brazil, Pope Francis made news with comments on gay Catholics and women's church roles, but his words about communion for Catholics who remarry after a divorce hinted at a possible future change in church practice.
He was returning from the church's World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, which drew 3 million young people and solidified his reputation as a man who makes holiness look like fun.
Regarding communion for divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment, Pope Francis said he would make pastoral response a high priority. He suggested the Orthodox Church as a model. Orthodox tradition allows up to three marriages, arguing that human frailty can prevent people from living up to Jesus' ideal of one marriage.
During an 80-minute impromptu news conference, he was questioned about his arrival, when his car was mobbed and he rolled down the windows to reach out and bless people. He said he wanted to be close to the people and noted that no one tried to harm him.
"I realize there's always a risk of a crazy person, but having a bishop behind bulletproof glass is crazy, too. Between the two, I prefer the first kind of craziness," he said.
He drew the most attention for his answer to a question about two incidents regarding gay clergy in the Vatican.
The first part of the question concerned media reports that Monsignor Battista Ricca, whom he chose to overhaul the scandal-plagued Vatican Bank, was accused 12 years ago of cruising gay bars and having an affair with a man. The second part referred to a report that he had told Latin Americans in a closed meeting that a "gay lobby" exists in the Vatican. That term was never defined. In the United States, "lavender mafia" is used to describe cliques of gay priests who promote and cover up for each other.
Regarding Monsignor Ricca, Pope Francis said he followed church law and ordered an investigation that "did not find anything corresponding to the accusations against him." The pope criticized those who publicize what he called "sins of youth."
"These things are not crimes. ... Child abuse is a crime. But sins, if a person, or ... priest or a nun, has committed a sin and then that person experienced conversion, the Lord forgives and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives," Pope Francis said.
He did not confirm his alleged statement about a gay lobby, joking, "I have yet to find on a Vatican identity card the word 'gay.' "
"If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person? The catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point beautifully ... [saying] these persons must never be marginalized and they must be integrated into society," he said.
"He is saying things that the church has already said, but he is saying them in ways that people can understand," said Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. "Pope John Paul II was a philosopher. Pope Benedict XVI is a theologian. Pope Francis is a pastor. ... He tells us that you have to know your people, you have to know what their struggles are."
Some reports indicated Pope Francis was rejecting a document from Pope Benedict's pontificate that said the church "cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called 'gay culture.' "
Bishop Zubik said he didn't view that as a ban on candidates with a same-sex orientation, as long as they had lived a chaste life for at least two years. He considered it a ban on candidates whose lifestyles were at odds with church teaching, he said.
The comments on Monsignor Ricca show that he's unwilling to cave in to those who want to stop reform in Vatican offices, said Michael Sean Winters, an analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent liberal newspaper. "If he threw Monsignor Ricca under the bus, then the message that would get sent is that if Pope Francis appoints somebody with a reform agenda, then all you have to do is dig up some dirt on him and you can sack it," Mr. Winters said.
Pope Francis reaffirmed the ban on women as priests but called for deeper study on the importance of women in the church.
Phyllis Zagano, a Catholic scholar at Hofstra University who advocates for women to be deacons, called it significant that he didn't address that possibility. "Given the trajectory of conversations around the world ... I would think he is thinking and praying about restoring the dignity of the office of the deacon to women," she said.
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416. First Published July 30, 2013 4:00 AM