Shortly after Pope Francis was elected, the Vatican had to make clear that only the prepared remarks of the Holy Father should be considered authoritative. Pope Francis, you see, had a tendency—vexing or delightful, depending on your viewpoint—to go "off message," to depart from carefully prepared texts and to say whatever happened to be on his mind at the moment.
Several weeks ago, what happened to be on the Holy Father's mind was the long-rumored "gay lobby" in the Curia. Italian news reports in the days leading up to the papal conclave in March had claimed that Pope Benedict XVI had been so concerned about the influence of such a lobby that he had created a commission of three cardinals to investigate it. (See The Pope Resigns: The Rest of the Story? for more details.) And now here was Benedict's successor, for all intents and purposes, confirming the reports. Vatican functionaries groaned; "conservative" Catholics cheered; traditionalist Catholics who had been upset at the election of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio saw, for the first time, a little glimmer of hope in Francis's acknowledgment of possible corruption in the Curia.
The picture is very different today, after Pope Francis's impromptu press conference on his flight back from the World Youth Day activities in Brazil. While the Holy Father answered questions in Italian and Spanish for an hour and 20 minutes, the only thing that anyone seems to have been interested in is his final answer—and then, not even the entirety of the answer, much less the question which Pope Francis addressed.
Most of the headlines in the press, secular and Catholic, were a variant on the one found at the top of the BBC's report on the interview: "Pope Francis: Who am I to judge gay people?" If one read only the headlines and the opening paragraphs of most articles, one could be excused for thinking that the Holy Father had reversed 2,000 years of Catholic teaching regarding the immorality of homosexual activity. Indeed, one could read the full text of many of the articles and come away with that same impression.
Of course, the Holy Father did no such thing, as the most complete transcripts of his remarks make clear. (The best transcript I have seen so far comes from Andrea Tornielli in Vatican Insider. My thanks to Tom Piatak for pointing it out to me.)
We need to start with the questions that were asked, and the context in which they were asked. At the very end of the interview, a reporter asked two questions, the first about claims that Msgr. Battista Ricca, whom Pope Francis had chosen to head up the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR; more commonly known as the Vatican Bank), had engaged in homosexual activity years ago while stationed in Paraguay. The Holy Father replied (in Tornielli's transcription and translation):
I have acted in accordance with Canon Law and ordered an investigation. None of the accusations against him have proved to be true. We haven’t found anything! It is often the case in the Church that people try to dig up sins committed during a person’s youth and then publish them. We are not talking about crimes or offences such as child abuse which is a whole different matter, we are talking about sins. If a lay person, a priest or a nun commits a sin and then repents of it and confesses, the Lord forgives and forgets. And we have no right not to forget, because then we risk the Lord not forgetting our own sins. I often think of St. Peter who committed the biggest sin of all, he denied Jesus. And yet he was appointed Pope. But I repeat, we have found no evidence against Mgr. Ricca.
The final question concerned the Holy Father's confirmation of the presence of a "gay lobby" in the Curia. Very few reports (the BBC's report is a notable exception) have mentioned that context, nor have they printed Pope Francis's response in its entirety. As the BBC notes, the Holy Father referred to the teachings in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which explains "that homosexual acts were sinful, but homosexual orientation was not," while addressing the "gay lobby" and the question of homosexual clergy in the Vatican (not homosexuals generally). The following text, once again, is Andrea Tornielli's transcription and translation:
There is so much being written about the gay lobby. I haven’t met anyone in the Vatican yet who has “gay” written on their identity cards. There is a distinction between being gay, being this way inclined and lobbying. Lobbies are not good. If a gay person is in eager search of God, who am I to judge them? The Catholic Church teaches that gay people should not be discriminated against; they should be made to feel welcome. Being gay is not the problem, lobbying is the problem and this goes for any type of lobby, business lobbies, political lobbies and Masonic lobbies.
Taken in context, it's clear that the single line quoted in every story (to use the BBC's translation, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?") is, when printed by itself, highly misleading. Pope Francis did not dismiss, much less justify, homosexual activity; he spoke of men with homosexual desires who have already been ordained and are "in eager search of God"—men, moreover, who are not engaged in lobbying on behalf of their disordered affections.
For anyone who has followed Pope Francis's public statements since his election, this all simply makes sense. The Holy Father does not believe that one can "seek God" by obstinately engaging in immoral activity; one seeks God by, among other things, living a chaste life. Report after report contrasted Pope Francis's remarks with Pope Benedict's 2005 order that men with deep-seated homosexual inclinations should not be ordained priests, but nothing that Pope Francis said indicates that he disagrees with his predecessor on this point or that he intends to change this discipline. He was speaking of men who are already ordained, not those who are in seminary today, much less homosexuals in general, active or chaste. To the extent that his remarks can be generalized to the entire homosexual population, they are a call for those whose particular temptation is same-sex attraction to seek God, by (among other things) avoiding sexual sin.
The most ridiculous part of this media frenzy is that Pope Francis's remarks are no different from remarks that Pope Benedict himself made many times during his pontificate, remarks that simply reflect (as the Holy Father noted) the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Like the media circus in 2010 over Pope Benedict's remarks on condoms (see Pope Benedict and Condoms: What He Did and Did Not Say), this sudden "controversy" tells us more about the sexual obsessions of modern man—and the willingness of the media, both secular and Catholic, to play to those obsessions—than it does about Pope Francis.