Papal statements often get the same breathless scrutiny that’s usually lavished on cryptic symbols in Dan Brown novels. So it’s hardly surprising that the world, especially Roman Catholics like myself, is breathlessly decoding what Pope Francis told reporters on his flight back to Rome from Brazil on Monday regarding homosexuality: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
As TIME’s Stephen Faris has noted, while the Pope’s remarks might be a welcome and humane sentiment, they hardly represent a break with Catholic church doctrine, which still condemns homosexuality. The Vatican’s catechismal stance regarding the LGBTs in our midst remains the same: The church may love the sinner, but it hates the sin. And since Francis was referring specifically to gay priests—who like other Catholic clerics take a vow of celibacy and so don’t commit the “sin”— His Holiness wasn’t exactly going out on a theological limb.
But at a time when the world, including most U.S. Catholics, is increasingly accepting gay rights and even gay marriage, here ‘s what’s really significant about the Pope’s statement: The love-the-sinner-but-hate-the-sin trope no longer carries much if any moral credibility. How—given our awareness today that homosexuality is as biological as heterosexuality, and that homosexual relationships have proven as valid and socially enriching as straight ones— can we take any religious leader seriously when he claims to love gay people but at the same time demonizes the consummation of their love for each other?
How, for example, can the Catholic church declare homosexuals “disordered” and their lifestyle an “intrinsic moral evil,” yet expect us to applaud its “love” for gays somewhere beneath all that homophobic bigotry? My mother was raised in Mississippi and has often told me of Southern whites in the mid-20th century insisting they could love a black person even if they hated the black race. No, you can’t have it both ways. So it makes no more sense to me in the early 21st century to hear Pope Francis claim to love gays while I know that when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he called Argentina’s legalization of gay marriage a “grave anthropological regression.” Or to hear celebrity evangelical pastor Rick Warren profess admiration for gay friends but then keep saying that it “might be a sin” for them to sleep with each other.
At least Warren is hedging these days. And even if Francis wasn’t announcing doctrinal reform on Monday, his comments may still eventually help break down the Vatican’s denunciation of gay life — especially since they mark an explicit papal approval of homosexuals in the priesthood, an endorsement that would have made the miters of his predecessors spin on their heads. Conservative lay leaders like Bill Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League, have even suggested that the church’s clerical sexual abuse crisis was largely a result of gay infiltration of the priesthood. Now, we’re likely to see more openly gay priests like the Rev. Fred Daley, pastor of All Saints Church in Syracuse, N.Y., who is leading a campaign to erect a monument to the Rev. Mychal Judge, another gay priest and New York City Fire Department chaplain who was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Either way, the Pope’s remarks point up a dilemma for his and many other religious institutions today. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York admitted recently that “we haven’t been too good, we’ve got to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people.” And the best way to do that is by reforming the doctrine that attacks gay people.
(MORE: A Pope for the Poor)