Gay and straight priests alike are cheering Pope Francis's comments about homosexuality in the priesthood, saying gay priests make up a significant segment of the Catholic clergy and deserve papal recognition.
On a plane from Brazil Monday, Francis told reporters that, "if someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
It's a comment that stands in stark contrast to the policy of Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who signed a document in 2005 that said men with strong gay tendencies should not be priests.
According to Father James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College, Francis's comments aren't a fundamental change in the church's teaching, but represent a much-needed shift in attitude that reflects the reality of the priesthood.
"It's an empirical fact that lots of men are gay who are priests. And they are very good priests," he says. "I would also observe that the numbers of gay men and women in the church ministry is probably larger than the general population, precisely because they are not seeking marriage."
Catholic doctrine holds that only unmarried, celibate men may enter the priesthood, and Francis's comments do not change that.
The notion that many Catholic priests are quietly gay is not new. In the 2000 book "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," Rev. Donald B. Cozzens suggested that the priesthood was increasingly becoming a gay profession. Cozzens estimated that as much as 58 percent of priests were gay, and that percentages were even higher for younger priests. His numbers matched previous estimates by sociologists who put the numbers of gay priests between 10 and 60 percent.
Father Gary Meier, a gay, St. Louis-based Catholic clergymen, says there's a wide range of statistics out there on gay priests, but jokes that in his experience, "30 percent are gay, 30 percent are straight, and 30 percent are in denial."
Meier, who wrote a coming-out book called "Hidden Voices, Reflections of a Gay Catholic Priest," says he is cautiously cheering Francis's comments.
"It is such a breath of fresh air to hear something different than the anti-gay hostility that we hear from so much of the hierarchy of our church," he says. "But this is also from the same person who called gay marriage the work of the devil."
In 2010, when Francis was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he called proposed laws on gay unions in Argentina a "destructive attack on God's plan." He later referred to gay marriage as "the devil's work."