It’s Not What the Pope Said About Gays, It’s How He Said It

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Pope Francis addresses the young people at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro during World Youth Day on July 25, 2013

At first glance, Pope Francis’ statement on homosexuality, delivered today in an impromptu press conference aboard the papal plane, seemed to indicate a remarkable break with church tradition. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis told journalists, as he flew from Rio de Janeiro to Rome. “The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … They’re our brothers.”

The Pope’s words were warmly received by gay activists in Italy and elsewhere. “From now on, when I hear a bishop or a priest say something against me, I’m going to say, ‘Who are you to judge,'” says Franco Grillini, president of Gaynet Italia, the association of gay journalists in Italy.

(MORE: Pope Francis Says He Does Not Judge Gay Priests)

But like many of Francis’ more newsmaking statements, the real difference is less about the contents of his words than in the direct, earthy style in which he delivers them and the church teachings he chooses to emphasize. “It’s the way he’s expressing himself, with great candor, that is surprising to people,” says John Wauck, a professor of communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. “Actually, the substance of it is nothing exceptional.”

Francis’ comment in May that some atheists might make it into heaven drew headlines. The Vatican’s subsequent explanation that his words were in line with a long tradition of church teachings did not. Similarly, Francis’ statement on the plane was not far from the passage on homosexuality in the catechism of the Catholic Church, published under Pope John Paul II in 1992. That text calls on Catholics to accept homosexuals “with respect, compassion and sensitivity,” avoiding “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard.”

Where he differed is in what he left out: the accompanying message in the catechism that while a gay person is to be accepted, acting out on homosexual acts is to be deplored: “Under no circumstances can they be approved … Homosexual persons are called to chastity.” Francis, who cited the catechism in his answers to reporters, said nothing to contradict this. Asked for his position on gay marriage, he answered: “You know perfectly the position of the church.”

But while Francis has put little doctrinal space between himself and his predecessors, comments like the one on the plane reflect a clear choice in the early months of his papacy to de-emphasize the issues of sexual morality that have made the church a lightning rod in the culture wars. Even as France was consumed last spring in debate over the legalization of gay marriage, a battle that pitted the French church against the government, Francis made no mention of the issue.

In Brazil, he told the reporters on the plane, he purposefully avoided talking about abortion or gay marriage, in order to stay focused on the positive. “His message is not ‘Don’t do that, don’t do this,'” says Wauck. “The moral strictures are present, but they’re implicit. The attention of the Pope is on a much larger vision of the church and what Christianity has to offer to the world.”

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