Rumbles of Change in the Vatican: Pope Signals Openness to Gay Priests

Human Rights

As they settled into their seats on the Alitalia jet, the assembled members of the Vatican press corps might not have expected a great deal from the journey home.

They had just followed the Catholic church's first Latin American pope on a meet and greet around Brazil. They had seen his Fiat Idea mobbed by weeping fans. They had watched him celebrate mass with three million pilgrims on the packed-out shores of Copacabana beach. What, they may have wondered, could top  that?

Sometime after take-off, however, Pope Francis strolled to the back of the aircraft and gave them their answer. The in-flight entertainment, it turned out, would be him: a no-holds-barred press conference that lasted for an hour and 20 minutes and was the first of its kind to take place on a papal plane since the early days of a vigorous John Paul II.

"The atmosphere was one of near incredulity," said John L Allen, a veteran Vatican observer for the National Catholic Reporter, who was on board the flight. "We haven't seen something like this for 20 years."

In the course of his first real press conference, a free-wheeling session in which the pope answered all the questions thrown at him and even thanked a journalist who asked him about a recent sex scandal, Francis signalled a readiness to address the serious issues of the church – albeit in a light-hearted manner.

Asked about reports of a "gay lobby" inside the Roman curia, he replied: "I have still not seen anyone in the Vatican with an identity card saying they are gay."

He struck a markedly more conciliatory tone towards homosexuality than his predecessor, saying: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge? The catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says they should not be marginalised because of this [orientation] but that they must be integrated into society."

That catechism however, also teaches that, "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered". Francis said nothing that would appear to counter that, although some observers said his remarks set him apart from Benedict, who said that men with deep-seated tendencies should not enter the priesthood.

Francis seemed to disagree: "The problem is not having this [homosexual] orientation. We must be brothers. The problem is lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worse problem."

Francis also used the word "gay" rather than "homosexual", which his predecessors preferred.

Speaking for the first time as pope on the issue of women's ordination, Francis said that although that particular door was "closed", the church should find ways to boost women's "role and charism [divinely bestowed gifts]".

He joked about Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, a prelate alleged to have tried to fly €20m in cash into Italy illegally, saying he "didn't go to jail because he resembled a saint".

Francis also dismissed sinister whisperings about his relationship with his predecessor, describing living with Benedict in the Vatican as "like having … a wise grandfather living at home". Asked what was in the famous black briefcase he clutched while boarding the plane last week, Francis was happy to clarify: "The keys to the atomic bomb weren't in it." His razor, prayer book, agenda and a book on Saint Thérèse of Lisieux were.

The pope's comments on the gay lobby came after an Italian magazine published a report claiming that the prelate whom Francis chose to be his "eyes and ears" in the Vatican bank had lived all-but-publicly with his gay lover in Uruguay.

The pope said he had ordered an investigation into the claims and had found nothing to back them up. Moreover, he chided journalists for covering such stories, saying there was a world of difference between allegations of that kind – which he said concerned "sin" that could be forgiven and forgotten by God – and crimes, such as the sexual abuse of children.

On the long-troubled Vatican bank, Francis spoke of several possibilities for its reform, and did not rule out its eventual closure, saying that it needed to become "honest and transparent".

Asked whether he had met with resistance from within the Roman curia – the Vatican's sprawling central bureaucracy – to that and other reforms, he said: "There are many people [in the Vatican] who are saints but there are those who are not very saintly … and it pains me when this happens."

Pressed on whether, by that, he meant he had come up against open opposition to his ideas, he replied: "If there is resistance I have not seen it yet."

When the 80 minutes were up, and all subjects from the papal sciatic nerve to the vindication of his free-wheeling low-security preferences had been exhausted, the pope went back to his seat for the remaining hours of the transatlantic flight.

For the reporters on board, Allen said, the spectacle could not have been more different from the "very carefully stage-managed affairs" under Benedict XVI, in which a handful of questions were usually screened and the sessions restricted to brief encounters.

On this occasion, reporters had been told that there would be "ample space" for questions with the pope. But, as Allen remarked, "in Vatican speak, if someone says the pope is going to give you an 'ample' period of time you normally think that means 15 minutes". What they got, instead, was a wide-ranging discussion that touched on some of the most controversial issues in the church today.

"I don't know that we've learned anything new at the level of content," said Allen, after the plane landed in Rome. "I think what we learned first of all is that this pope is capable of dealing with the press and doing so remarkable effectively … and the other thing is that he is determined to set the most positive tone possible, to try to put a positive face on church teachings, including those teachings that some people find harsh."

What Francis said …

• On gay people: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"

• On women: "We must go further in the explicitness of the role and charism of women living in the church."

• On the need for bodyguards: "I'd like to walk in the streets. But I know it's impossible."

• On the black bag he took on the plane: "The keys to the atomic bomb weren't in it." (Apparently it held his razor and books)

• On his advisers: "I like it when someone tells me: 'I don't agree.' This is a true collaborator. When they say 'Oh, how great, how great, how great,' that's not useful."

• On his predecessor: "The last time there were two or three popes, they didn't talk among themselves and they fought over who was the true pope!" Having Benedict living in the Vatican "is like having a grandfather – a wise grandfather living at home".

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