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Is Pope Francis too radical for his flock?

When an estimated 3 million enraptured people gathered on Rio de Janiero’s Copacabana beach last Sunday, Pope Francis’s pilgrimage to Brazil suddenly went from big news in Latin America to huge news around the globe. The beachside Mass confirmed for the press corps his charisma and sent reporters scurrying for superlatives. The Guardian described the Pope’s trip as “triumphant.” The Wall Street Journal said he had received a “rock star reception.” Al Jazeera’s correspondent Lucia Newman declared the scene on the beach in Rio as “extraordinary.”

Following the Copacabana Mass, Francis flew home to Rome aboard a chartered jet. After the plane leveled off at a cruising altitude, he wandered to the back of the cabin to mingle with reporters and conduct a press conference in the manner of a presidential candidate. The moment was unexpected, especially since the pope had previously declined all requests for interviews since taking office in March. But he was buoyant from the reception he received in Brazil and, perhaps, emboldened to spend a bit of the capital he had accumulated.

No question was off-limits and the reporters rose to the occasion, inquiring about controversies ranging from the Vatican Bank to gay priests in a Church that condemns homosexual activity. On that subject, Francis said, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency (to homosexuality) is not the problem . . . they’re our brothers.” It was the kind of statement – humble, direct and friendly – that makes people feel he’s like the priest who asks for second glass of wine at Sunday dinner and encourages you to have one, too.

Even if Francis’s olive branch toward gays in the church falls short of a shift in substance, his words represent a major break with the church’s long history of deep-seated social conservatism. While the Church still regards homosexual acts as sinful, no previous pope has offered a “who am I to judge?” response to the question of what to do with gay priests.

Indeed, under the reign on Francis’s immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, top church officials frequently blamed gay priests for the terrible sexual abuse crisis afflicting the church worldwide. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana even suggested the church could benefit from some of the anti-gay prejudice seen in his country, echoing similar sentiments expressed by churchmen in the U.S. In this context, Francis’s comments about gay priests mark him as a very different leader who may be heralding the end of an era deep and abiding intolerance of homosexuality. (During his flight home, Francis also said that the church needed a new theological perspective on the role and status of women. “Let us remember,” he said, “that Mary is more important than the bishop apostles, so women in the church are more important than bishops and priests.”)

In speaking so boldly, Francis risks alienating Catholics in the industrialized West who have supported conservative theology, doctrine and leadership. This significant minority is energized by the fight against abortion and resistance to those who would welcome both female priests and an end to mandatory celibacy for clerics. They have loyally supported the church with donations and activism and can be expected to oppose any change in direction of the sort Francis has signaled. With his comments, Francis poses a challenge to those who felt comfortable with the conservative leadership they have known for more than a generation. But this constituency cannot sustain the church in the long term, and the church now needs a figure able to bridge the gap between its rightward movement and the reality that Westerners are leaving the church in droves. That problem requires a wily pope with the skill and charisma to pull off the high-wire balancing act of unifying these two disparate impulses. Could Francis be that man?

In his first months in office, Francis has reached out to women, Muslims, atheists and now gays with insistent gestures of humility. He has also promised a dialogue with victims of abuse, reforms at the Vatican Bank and greater commitment to the poor. On the specific issue of homosexuality and Catholicism, the pope has begun a discussion that will continue in parishes worldwide and may lead, over the long term, to a revision of official teaching. More generally, by enthusiastically wading into controversial issues, Francis is clearly rejecting the “remnant church” approach. He’s not interested in withdrawing and prefers, instead, to swim in the stream of history. Here, finally, is a pope willing to grapple with the implications of a social trend – the increasing acceptance of homosexuality – that threatens to relegate the church to irrelevance. Unlike his predecessor, Francis is not content to wait out the millennia with his head in the sand. Rather, this is a pope eager to explain how this ancient church should fit into a changing world.

For 30 years, conservative church leaders have stood by and watched as the Church failed to end its sex abuse crisis and the scandal afflicting the Vatican Bank. They have watched while the people of the industrialized West, including those in that most Catholic of countries, Ireland, have abandoned the Church in droves. Issues like homosexuality, the status of women and the desire of many priests to be married were never going to be addressed successfully by men who could not reach out with authentic warmth. Francis, the man they selected, seems up to the task.

(D’Antonio is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist based in Long Island, N.Y. His most recent book is Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal.)

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