Pope's Comment On His Openness To Gays 'Remarkable'

Melissa Block speaks with John Allen, senior correspondent at National Catholic Reporter, about Pope Francis' comments regarding gay clergy.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. On his flight back from Brazil today, Pope Francis surprised reporters by engaging in a freewheeling 81-minute discussion of hot-button issues, including homosexuality.

POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge, Pope Francis said. They shouldn't be marginalized. Well, John Allen, senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter, was on that plane listening to the pope. He joins me now from Vatican City. John, welcome to the program.

JOHN ALLEN: Hello, Melissa.

BLOCK: What specifically was the question that Pope Francis was answering there?

ALLEN: In this particular case, one of our colleagues asked the pope a question about the so-called gay lobby in the Vatican. And he was asked if he believes there is a gay lobby in the Vatican. His first response was to say he doesn't really believe there is, and if there is, he's never seen their ID cards.

BLOCK: Making a bit of a joke.

ALLEN: But beyond that, he then engaged the substance of the question by saying if such a thing were to exist, his problem would be with the lobby. His problem would not be with the gay persons, and that led him to the soundbite that you just quoted, that when he meets a gay person, his instinctive response is who am I to judge them.

BLOCK: And is the implication specifically here about gays in the priesthood then?

ALLEN: Well, the question had to do with the gay lobby in the Vatican, which would refer specifically to people who work in the Vatican, primarily priests. But the sense we had from the pope's response is that he was speaking more generally about his attitude towards gay persons, whether they're priests or ordinary laity.

BLOCK: When you heard those words coming from his lips, what was the reaction among the folks on that plane?

ALLEN: Well, at one level it is quite familiar. I mean the Catholic Church's official teaching on homosexuality says that homosexual persons are to be treated with what the catechism describes as respect, compassion and sensitivity. However, my suspicion is that most gays and lesbians around the world, when they hear the Catholic Church speak, they often probably do not hear that respect and sensitivity.

What they probably hear more often is what they perceive at least to be judgment. So to hear a pope saying I do not judge you is quite remarkable. But what we should say, that this was not a policy speech and the pope is not unveiling any new edict today. And this is characteristic of what Francis has done during the first four and a half months. At the level of substance - that is, concrete acts of governance - he hasn't done a great deal.

What he's been doing instead is at the level of style and tonality trying to induce people to take a new, more sympathetic look at the Catholic Church. And at that level, certainly judging by the crowds and the popular reaction in Brazil during the week that Francis was on the ground, you would have to say that he's done relatively well.

BLOCK: Well, John, this was a long and, as you say, freewheeling conversation with reporters on his plane back to Rome. And another topic that came up was women in the church, specifically the ordination of women, which has been such a hot-button issue for a lot of Catholics. What did the pope say about that?

ALLEN: Well, for those who would like to see the ordination of women as priests, Francis didn't offer much encouragement today. His response was that that issue, his phrase was the door is closed. He said that Pope John Paul II had made that definitive. However, he went on to say that he also wants women to play much more important roles in the church in ways that don't require ordination to the priesthood.

Again, I think this is the signature element of the Francis style. He delivers a breathtaking new tone, but that tone is placed on top of teachings of the Catholic Church as they've always been articulated.

BLOCK: Well, John Allen, good to talk to you again. Thanks so much.

ALLEN: Always a pleasure, Melissa.

BLOCK: John Allen, the senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter. We were talking about Pope Francis's 81-minute news conference with reporters on his flight back from Brazil.

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