Pope Francis Speaks Out On Gay Priests, Role Of Women

Pope Francis wrapped up a remarkable trip to Latin America on Monday, but he kept making news on his flight home. During a midair news conference, the pontiff said he does not "judge" gay priests and seeks a greater role for women in Catholic life. For more on the significance of the pope's comments, David Greene talks with the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

Pope Francis departed Brazil yesterday after a remarkable visit. It was a homecoming of sorts for the first pontiff from Latin America. But the news the pope made on his flight home might be the most significant of the trip. He told reporters on board the papal aircraft that he would not judge priests for being gay, as long as they search for the Lord and show goodwill. Pope Francis also spoke of a greater role for women in Catholic life.

Let's turn to Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and also senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. Father, welcome back to the program.

FATHER THOMAS REESE: Thank you.

GREENE: So Pope Francis on his plane tells reporters, and I'm quoting here, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?" And he's speaking about priests there. Does this surprise you?

REESE: Oh, this was an extraordinary statement because just a few years ago, back in 2005, we had a statement coming out of the Vatican saying if priests had deeply rooted tendencies towards homosexuality, they could not be ordained priests. This is a whole new ballgame.

GREENE: I could hear some critics of the Catholic Church, people who are gay and haven't felt welcome in Catholic communities, feeling like the pope should go a lot farther.

REESE: Yeah, clearly some people will feel that the pope should go much further - people who support gay marriage and feel that the church's teaching on homosexual activity should change. You know, he's not going to go there. But I think what he has said, in talking against the marginalizing of gays, this is extraordinarily important in places like Africa. And even important in the United States, where there's still a lot of homophobia. To have the pope say these are our brothers and sisters, these are people that are part of our family that we should love, that's an important statement.

GREENE: I wonder if this message from the pope, if it gives a priest the ability to acknowledge his homosexuality. I could imagine there being some parishioners who might not like to hear that.

REESE: I think you're right. I mean what typically happens here is people get to know a priest as a priest, as a good person. And then all of a sudden they find out, oh my God, he's a homosexual. This is what's happening all across our country, with people getting to know people at work or at school. Once you know someone as a human being and as a person, and then you find out they're a homosexual, that kind of breaks down the categories and the prejudices.

GREENE: Another topic that the pope covered, talking about the theology of women, and a greater role for women in the church, he stayed pretty vague. How did you interpret this?

REESE: Well, the most extraordinary part of that statement was that he confessed that he didn't think we had a very good theology of women in the church. I mean when was the last time you heard a pope say that we didn't have a good theology? Usually the Vatican presents itself as the answer man. He's inviting us into a conversation. I think that's very positive.

GREENE: Are we going down a road that might ultimately lead to female priests?

REESE: We'll, I think he made it very clear that he doesn't think so. He believes that the decision of John Paul II against the ordination of women was definitive. Obviously I think there are a lot of women in the church, and even some theologians, who disagree with that. And that's probably going to be part of the discussion.

GREENE: So the pope made these comments in a press conference on a plane. And we should step back. This was the pope doing a press conference on a plane. I mean that's unprecedented.

REESE: What was most ironic is, on the plane, on the way from Rome to Rio, he said he didn't like to do press conferences. And then on the way back to Rome, he gives probably the most extraordinary and open press conference that a pope has ever had. Typically in the past the questions are given to the pope in writing, prepared in advance. This was totally spontaneous. Considering the fact that he didn't think he was very good at it, I think he hit a homerun.

GREENE: Father Thomas Reese, thank you so much for joining us, as always.

REESE: You're welcome.

GREENE: He's senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter and himself a Jesuit priest.

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