Why Pope Francis’s Press Conference Was Such Big News

Professor Stephen J. Pope of B.C. shares his take on Pope Francis's recent comments on gay priests.



Since Monday, a single comment made by Pope Francis in a press conference held aboard the papal airplane on the way back from his first foreign trip has been making headlines around the world.

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” he told reporters.

The comment does not stray from the Catholic catechism, which accepts homosexuals while condemning homosexual acts, and was just one of many topics addressed by the pope during his 82-minute press conference. Why, then, is the public so fascinated by it? Professor Stephen J. Pope, a professor at Boston College whose research interests include Roman Catholic social teachings, offered his view, as well as other takeaways from the entire press conference:

1. The Catholic Church sends out mixed messages about homosexuality. Pope Francis’s comment can be seen as an attempt to clear them up:

In 2005, under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican released a teaching document entitled “The Congregation for Christian Education,” which included a statement that a person with a “deep-seated homosexual orientation” is not suitable for priesthood, written in the context of an explosion of news about clerical sexual abuse. This led many gay Catholics to feel alienated. But at the same time, the Church has acknowledged a difference between sexual orientation and action. These two messages can be seen as conflicting, but Pope Francis’s comment offers a more clear view.

“[Gay Catholics] think that the message is not just what they’re attracted to doing sexually, but who they are that’s the problem. I think there’s a terrible injustice done to gay priests who have been tarnished with the suggestion that because they’re gay, they’re sexually abusive,” says Professor Pope. “Now, Francis is saying that the issue isn’t your orientation. It’s your commitment to living out the celibacy that you promised to live. And that’s a problem that’s equally difficult for gays and straights.”

2. Part of the fascination with the Pope’s comment is that it hasn’t been communicated well previously:

While the comment is in accord with the Church’s teachings, it’s not entirely in accord with how gay Catholics feel they’re treated by the Church, which is why it’s making headlines, according to Professor Pope. (Yes, that name’s a bit confusing.)

“He made this remarkable statement that shouldn’t be remarkable,” he says. “I think the most important dimension of this comment is that you can see that the Pope wants to de-stigmatize gays and lesbians within the Catholic Church. That in itself is a sign of respect and love. I think that hasn’t been communicated very well.”

It’s also important to note that Pope Francis is the first to use the more colloquial term “gay” rather than “homosexual,” says Professor Pope.

“That’s significant because it allows gay people to be taken on their own terms and not categorized in the terms that have been used by Catholic moral and canon law,” he says. “It indicates an openness and awareness to present experience and present forms of discourse rather than just sticking with tradition.”

3. While sticking to the Catholic catechism, Pope Francis’s comments signal a cultural change in the papacy:

“John Paul II and Benedict XVI were convinced that they needed to take a prophetic stance to western civilization, that a pope wasn’t someone who’s going to sit in a dialogue with you, but someone who’s going to tell you what God’s message is. More of a monologue than a dialogue,” said Professor Pope.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, is taking a more interactive approach to his papacy.

“I think the big change here with Francis, in contrast to his immediate predecessors, is that he’s stressing a very pastoral approach that says, ‘Let’s encounter people in their own lives and listen to them and respond with compassion,'” says Professor Pope. “It’s really an attitude of listening.”

4. The media’s focus on sexuality takes away from the Pope’s main concern of social justice:

“He wants to take down barriers, the biggest barrier being between the rich and the poor, not between straights and gays. The ultimate cultural hook in American society is sex and that’s an important dimension of our humanity, but it’s not the one he’s focused on so much,” says Professor Pope. “I think the bridge between the two issues of poverty and sexuality is the Pope wants to reach out to people who are marginalized. He wants to include people instead of exclude them. The question is, how can the Church be more inclusive while also being faithful? Those are the two things he’s trying to hold together—fidelity and inclusiveness.”

5. The open, relaxed nature of the press conference itself marks a different, less formal style of papacy:

While under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican required reporters to submit questions in advance and only a few would be answered by the Pope—with prepared comments. But in his 82-minute press conference, Francis refused no questions, appeared relaxed and candid, and even showed a sense of humor.

“He’s exposing himself to having questions asked of him that he wasn’t prepared for. It indicates a willingness to not be in control of the situation,” says Professor Pope. “He feels free to be able to make mistakes. One reason people don’t like to give unscripted interviews is that they can make a mistake. He’s told priests and bishops to get involved and not worry about making mistakes and he’s actually living out and acting upon the message that he’s telling other people they should live up to.”

Francis’s approach to the papacy is less formal than his predecessors’ and extends beyond just his relationship with the press. On his trip to Brazil, he carried his own bag and refused to use the bulletproof popemobile, acknowledging that there were security risks, but relying on his trust in people.

“He has the freedom to act spontaneously and I think that’s a great thing. The informality is very refreshing after we had a very formal eight years of Benedict XVI,” says Professor Pope. “Francis a very charismatic person who has quenched a thirst that a lot of people have in this country for someone who is more compassionate, more down-to-earth, who understands that times are changing and who’s more progressive and pastoral.”

6. The Pope’s approach to the papacy could mark a change in people’s attitude toward the Catholic Church:

“A lot of people have left the Catholic Church and a lot of people have stayed, but feel disappointed and stay out of loyalty and believe in the Church despite the leadership sometimes. I think those people have really been helped by Francis’s tone and his message” says Professor Pope. “It’s a pope they can relate to. It’s a pope they think is more likely to understand where they’re coming from.”