Pope Francis Is Walking the Walk

The rules of the church don't change easily, and the ones involving sex and gender in particular are likely to be stubbornly enduring.

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Pope Francis adresses journalists aboard the papal flight on the way back to Italy from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Sunday, July 28, 2013.

Pope Francis, in just a few simple words, has explained exactly why it's not only silly but wrong to hate gays and lesbians. "Who am I to judge?"

It was a startling comment, even though it didn't really represent any change in policy. During his first news conference as Pope, Francis was responding to a question about alleged corruption within a purported "gay lobby" in the Vatican.

Francis could have just reiterated the Catholic Church's outdated and unkind attitude towards homosexuals. He could have used it as an opportunity to insist on a world where men marry women, the couple doesn't have sex before marriage or use birth control ever, and men keep running the show in the hierarchy of the church. Instead, Francis managed to avoid betraying the church's rules on sex and gender while showing the sort of basic decency that ideally underpins any religion. On the flight back to Rome from Brazil, he said:

If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized. When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. … The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem . . . they're our brothers.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

It would be easy to say it's not enough; that Francis should take the church into the 21st century, possibly bringing in some much-needed young parishoners in the process. That would be unrealistic, and it would cause such a furor among the small but loud group of narrow-minded people that it might undo what Francis appears eager to do. He is helping to emphasize those sides of the church that are most appealing, and which attract young people – those side of an institution that pays attention to the poor and the needy and is inclusive and welcoming, not judgmental and rigidly moralistic.

The rules of the church don't change easily, and the ones involving sex and gender in particular are likely to be stubbornly enduring. But the tone matters. During the health care reform debate, it was the nuns who encouraged the opportunity to extend health insurance coverage to low-income people, to those who are so sick no insurance company would take them on. Nuns help people like this every day, so they know. And they got slapped down by the (male) powers that be. Instead, the church focused almost singularly on making sure no one could ever get an abortion – even if they used their own money or were buying their own health insurance. The battle over abortion nearly felled the entire bill – not to mention was behind death threats to a (now former) anti-abortion member of Congress deemed, ridiculously, insufficiently "pro-life" by foes.

[ Read the U.S. News debate: Should Catholic and Other Religious Institutions Have to Cover Birth Control?]

Francis, whose namesake is the saint who took an oath of poverty, is walking the walk. He lives simply. He talks about social justice and inclusion. In a world where young people use birth control, believe women should have the same opportunities as men and think gay marriage is no big deal, he may not be entirely on board. But he clearly sees the future. And he may end up saving the future of the church.