Pope's remarks on gays: A shift in tone, not substance
CNN — Reaction to Pope Francis' comments about not judging gays has broken along two lines: Either this is a groundbreaking reversal by the head of the Catholic Church, or it's basically just a guy talking on a plane.
The truth is, it's neither. What it really amounts to is a significant shift in tone, though not in substance.
Francis made the remark in the course of a free-wheeling, unscripted press conference at the end of his July 22-28 trip to Brazil for the Church's "World Youth Day."
Among a wide variety of other points, he was asked about a so-called "gay lobby" in the Vatican.
"When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby," he said in reply. "If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized."
Officially speaking, that's nothing new.
It's always been on the books in the Catholic Church that homosexual persons are to be treated with love. The Catechism, the official collection of Catholic doctrine, states that gays should always receive "'respect, compassion and sensitivity."
The church's problem is with behavior, not persons.
It's true that in 2005 the Vatican issued a document saying that men with a predominantly same-sex attraction should not be admitted to seminaries, and therefore should not be ordained priests. However, that policy has been unevenly applied, and in any event it refers to eligibility for the priesthood, not to human dignity.
In terms of perception, however, many gays and lesbians would probably say they don't always hear a message of respect and compassion from Catholic leaders. Instead, what they often seem to hear is precisely judgment. At that level, Francis is setting a new tone, one of acceptance and welcome, without reversing any doctrinal positions.
There is no indication, for instance, that Francis intends to upend the Church's opposition to gay marriage. He confirmed the Catholic understanding of marriage as a union between a man and a woman in a recent encyclical letter, the most important form of papal teaching.
The same point -- new tone, same teaching -- applies to his comments on the plane about women and abortion as well.
He confirmed the ban on women priests, and on the abortion question he said that the teaching of the Church is well known, but that he wants to offer a positive message.
That insight may help explain why, during the first 120 days of his papacy, Francis never actually used the words "abortion" or "gay marriage."
It's not that he lacks pro-life convictions; in Brazil, he spontaneously invited two parents who refused to abort a child with a severe brain deformity to join him at a Mass, as a way of congratulating them for their choice.
However, Francis also understands that the Church's positions on sexual morality are probably the best-known and most-discussed aspect of its teaching, while he wants to lift up other matters -- the defense of the poor, outreach to the marginalized and forgotten, and building a "culture of encounter" against what he described in Brazil as a "throw-away" society.
That's the Francis effect -- he's not changing doctrine, he's changing perceptions. For a Church that sometimes struggles with an image problem, that alone may count as a revolution.