Pope’s remarks on gay priests welcome news locally; clergy say it's consistent with Catholic teaching

Last modified: Thursday, August 01, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Leaders of local gay organizations welcomed remarks by Pope Francis earlier this week about not judging gay priests as a significant change in tone from the head of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church.

“One of the things that struck me was the beginning of his sentence, ‘Who am I to judge?’” said J.M. Sorrell, a spokeswoman for Northampton Pride who was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools. “I have never heard a pope utter that with such humility.”

In comments made to reporters on a flight back to Rome from a worldwide youth festival Monday in Rio de Janeiro, the pope responded to a question about whether there is a gay lobby inside the Vatican.

He said it was important to distinguish between a lobby, which he does not support, and priests or other Catholics who are gay.

“If a person is gay, seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge”?” Francis said. “We shouldn’t marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society.”

Sorrell said those words are a significant contrast to Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who said men with homosexual tendencies should not be priests, and also the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has spoken out against gay marriage.

In his conversations with reporters, Francis also drew a distinction between homosexuality and pedophilia — something Sorrell believes Catholic leaders have failed to do in previous public statements.

She sees the pope’s remarks as “a potentially huge shift from a very top-down mentality toward a movement for more inclusivity.”

Local Catholic clergy and scholars, on the other hand, say the pope’s comments reaffirm long-standing church teaching.

“Our leaders have always emphasized kindness and love to other people,” said the Rev. Robert Coonan, pastor of St. Joseph parish in Hatfield.

“What he said is not new,” said the Rev. William A. Pomerleau, pastor of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church in Springfield and a spokesman for the Springfield Diocese.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that some priests are gay and there are a lot of gay people in the world,” Pomerleau said. “The church has taught in modern times that gay people should not be discriminated against and should be integrated into society.“

Pomerleau noted that the pope did not stray from church doctrine that holds priests should be celibate and the purpose of sex is procreation within marriage.

“I do think this present pope has a remarkable gift for saying things clearly in ways that people can understand,” said Pomerleau, who has been a priest for 30 years. “What he’s doing is saying things in a new way, but it’s not new teaching.”

Carol Zaleski, a professor of world religion at Smith College, agrees that the pope’s statements are in line with church doctrine.

“It’s tempting for the media to look for dichotomies but I think continuity is what’s more important here,” she said.

Even Francis’ use of the phrase “Who am I to judge?” comes out of traditional Catholic belief in repentance and forgiveness of sins, Zaleski said.

Where she detected a shift in emphasis was in comments the pope made about the church needing to serve the “marginalized” and provide a greater role for women — comments that got less media attention, but were in some ways more significant, Zaleski said.

“The pope is saying, ‘don’t focus so much on sexuality.’ He wants to shift the church toward the goal of serving others,” she said.

Sister Carol Allan, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph and director of campus ministries at Elms College in Chicopee, said Francis’ focus on the poor comes out of his membership in the Jesuit order.

“When you live in a religious community, you are more acclimated to community life,” she said. “He wants to keep those connections to people.”

As for Francis’ call for a greater role for women in the church — a call that does not include allowing women to be priests — Allan said, “women have been the backbone of the church for years and that’s not going to change. What we’re looking for is more of a voice.”

Rocco Pigneri, a spokesman for Dignity/Boston, a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Catholics and friends, said his members were “disappointed that the pope closed the door so firmly on women’s ordination.”

Still, he said, they were encouraged by the pope’s remarks about gay Catholics.

“For any LGBT person to be characterized as a person of faith and good will is a very positive thing,” Pigneri said. “We’re excited to see Francis take this step and hope it will lead to more.”


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