So far in his papacy, Pope Francis has washed the feet of AIDS victims, visited young prisoners, called on the Catholic Church to embrace the poor and now, reached out to gay people by saying he won't judge priests for their sexual orientation.
“If someone is gay, and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge,'' Francis said this week as he returned from Brazil, his first foreign trip.
The remarks were in line with the compassionate tone that Francis has taken in his first months as pope. Some local Catholics viewed the comments as another sign of movement toward a church that is more inclusive and merciful, rather than judgmental.
His words, however, are not a sign of any change in church doctrine opposing homosexuality, say local church leaders, who praised the pope for his compassion.
“There were no new twists to church teachings,” said Deacon Tim McNeil, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Omaha. “He was restating church teaching, and reminding everyone that those with same-sex attractions need the same love and respect as everyone else.”
Monsignor Timothy Thorburn, vicar general of the Diocese of Lincoln, agreed.
“It's God's duty to judge,'' he said.
McNeil said the Omaha archdiocese would not remove a priest who was gay as long as he remained celibate. A gay priest who was sexually active would face discipline, he said, as would a priest who had a heterosexual affair.
Thorburn declined to address gay priests specifically, but said a priest would face discipline if he acted on sinful temptation in a serious way that affected his abilities to carry out his duties.
Francis drew significant attention just for addressing the issue of gay people. For generations, it has largely been a taboo topic for the Vatican and divides many Catholics.
Eileen Burke-Sullivan, associate professor of theology at Creighton University, said Francis' comments on gays were in line with the openness he has shown toward all people, whether drug addicts or people living in slums.
“What seems to be on the forefront of Francis' agenda is convincing people of the loving mercy of God,'' she said.
Mary Eileen Andreasen, director of adult faith formation at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, said the pope's call for mercy is an attempt to break down divides between people.
“He's just getting us back to the Gospel, (of) just being more accepting, loving people,” she said.
Nancy Kilbride, a member of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Council Bluffs, agreed that the pope is trying to welcome all Catholics.
“It's a great opening for people who have felt left out of the church,'' she said.
Francis, the son of Italian immigrants, has been considered the pope with the common touch. As an archbishop in Argentina, he lived in a simple apartment, often rode the bus to work and cooked his own meals.
Burke-Sullivan said other popes, including Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, addressed the importance of human dignity but did so in a more formal way, making the comments seem distant.
She said Francis' use of the word “gay” is an example of how he is trying to be more inclusive. Some popes avoided using the word.
By using it, she said, Francis was connecting with everyday people because that's the term they use.
His use of “gay” was a sign of respect, said Joni Stacy, board member of the Omaha chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Gay people consider the term “homosexual” as derogatory, she said.
Stacy, who emphasized that she was not speaking for her organization, said Francis' comments about gays were a “small but positive step in the right direction.”
But the church, she said, has a long way to go in truly accepting gay people.
“I don't hold much hope,'' she said.
This report includes material from the Associated Press and the New York Times.