‘Who am I to judge?’: Pope Francis takes historic stance on gay clergy

Pope Francis made comments on Monday that appeared to be a significant concession in the way the Catholic Church viewed homosexuality, at least in relation to homosexuality within the ranks of the clergy.

During a press conference held during his return flight from Brazil, at the end of his first foreign trip since being named pope in March, Francis said he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation, a startlingly candid comment considering some previous popes didn’t even hold press conferences.

"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" he asked, according to the Canadian Press.

The comment followed a question about an Italian news report alleging one of his trusted aides had been involved in a gay romance. Francis said he had investigated the allegations and found nothing criminal. He added that when someone sins and confesses, God forgives and forgets.

[ Your voice: Is the Catholic church poised to accept homosexuality? ]

So it's not exactly a celebration of diversity, but it is still a breath of fresh air from the Vatican.

The Catholic Church teachings call for homosexuality to be treated with dignity, although it still opposes gay marriage. And its tolerance for homosexuality in the clergy has been an entirely other question.

In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI signed an order that homosexual men should not be priests.

So compared to that, these comments signify a major shift. But on how the Vatican views homosexuality, or at least should view it, this doesn’t mark a distinct change.

During a debate about gay-straight alliance clubs in Ontario Catholic schools last year, Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, underlined the importance of ensuring that "all people are treated with love and respect." He did, however, oppose legislation forcing schools to allow anti-bullying clubs to be named "gay-straight alliances."

Gerry O'Connell, a papal commentator for CTV News, told the network that the pope’s comment essentially underlined the church's traditional teaching.

"What he has said is the teaching of the church is that there are people who are this way in life. The church teaches they are not to be isolated, they are our brothers," O'Connell said. "Everybody commits sin, and does wrong in life."

[ Related: Pope Francis reaches out to gays, says he won't judge gay priests ]

Francis has made several splashes with his down-to-earth approach to being the head of the Catholic Church. (Or is God the head and he the neck?)

Shortly after being announced as the pope earlier this year, Francis returned to his clerical residence to personally pay his hotel bill.

He also insisted on taking the bus the day after his election and made washing feet one of his first official tasks.

And upon embarking on his trip to Brazil, he was seen carrying his own bag onto the plane.

"We have to get use to this being normal, this normalcy of life," he told the weekend press conference. He added that the bag contained a razor, his agenda and a prayer book. "The keys to the atomic bomb weren't in it," he quipped.

All of these are shockingly normal in their simplicity. Monday's pronounced support for gay clergy was clearly more important for the message it should send through the church.

Although it's unlikely Pope Francis will be riding on a float in a gay pride parade any time soon.

Want to know what news is brewing in Canada?
Follow @MRCoutts on Twitter