Pope Francis spoke to 3 million people on Sunday spread for miles and miles on the beachfront in Rio de Janeiro in a story that made Page 5 in the New York Times, which like many outlets featured an astonishing aerial Getty photograph.

Can you name anyone else in the world who could draw 3 million people and get stuck on Page 5? This is not a pick-on-the-Times blog post. That enormous moment was a flyover piece in many media outlets. After all, he only spoke about poverty, condemned drug cartels and urged young people to get deeply involved in the work of society. The lesson here is that if you draw three million people but don’t talk about sex, most newsrooms will yawn.

The big media moment of Francis’s extraordinary trip came at the end, on the flight back to Rome, when in an 80-minute conference with journalists he said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

And the heavens opened for the media.

Francis cut a huge distance from his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who in 1986, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the Vatican’s chief theologian, told the world’s bishops in a letter: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” [emphasis added]

For gays, this meant sexual intimacy with someone you loved was a moral evil. And the longings for physical love were an objective disorder.

“We shouldn’t marginalize people for this,” Pope Francis continued, prodding toward the closet the language that muzzled a generation of Catholic bishops.

“They must be integrated into society,” Francis told journalists.

Francis was speaking in the context of a church official in Rome he recently appointed to an oversight role for the Vatican Bank. Sandro Magister of L’espresso has run two detailed reports alleging that Monsignor Battista Ricca, as a papal ambassador to Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1999 had a relationship with a Swiss army captain “so open as to scandalize numerous bishops, priests, and laity of that little South American country, not last the sisters who attended to the nunciature.”

By speaking out with compassion for gay people, Francis was buying time for himself in deciding what to do about Ricca, whom he has so far supported, and the larger task of rooting out corruption in the Roman Curia. Italian news reports, largely unconfirmed until Magister’s article, referred to a gay cabal within the Curia.

“There’s talk about the gay lobby, but I’ve never seen it on the Vatican ID card,” the pope said. According to press accounts, he then said, “When I meet a gay person I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby.” His next sentence shifted to the broader realm of humanity: “If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them...The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem...They’re our brothers.”

It takes no prophet to figure out what happens next: theologians and Catholic specialists will become short-term talking heads, those on the right pressed to say that Francis has not changed the church’s basic position of “love the sinner,” that homogenital sex is wrong, only that he as Supreme Pontiff is not passing judgment on individual gay people.

In fact, he has set the old natural law argument on its head.

The great tension in Christianity today is between science and scripture, and the great lengths of hypocrisy that, at least in the Catholic Church, certain leaders have taken to avoid like plague the introspection that as children Catholics were taught to summon for confession -- a true examination of conscience.

Ratzinger’s position in 1986 was an extremist take on natural law, a moral view of the law as a divine instrument for orderly human affairs, a position heavily shaped by the medieval Dominican scholar, St. Thomas Aquinas. Any sexual intimacy outside of marriage was wrong, and any sexual activity between people of the same sex violated the logic of sexuality, which was to procreate. This is the basis of Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical condemning birth control devices.

Ratzinger was doing something else in 1986: deflecting attention from the church’s large internal culture of gay priests.

The church has historically had internal issues with homosexual behavior. Peter Damian – the final saint Dante meets in the Paradiso – raised a cry against rampant violations of chastity by clerics in the 11th century. Church laws for centuries have laid down strict prohibitions on the abuse of children and sexual behavior by priests which have been broken by clergy and uncomfortably brushed aside by generations of bishops. But the celibacy law prevented all priests from inheriting church property; one of the main reasons it was institutionalized in the middle ages, was to prevent bishops from establishing dynasties.

For a primer, see "Sex, Priests and Secret Codes" by Thomas Doyle, Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall. The history of sexual upheavals within the church was part of Ratzinger’s frustration in telling bishops that priests must stop ministering to Dignity, an advocacy group of gay Catholics.

As Benedict he issued an order barring seminaries from admitting men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies. The celibacy law, meanwhile, has driven heterosexual men in droves away from seminary and the priesthood for two generations now. Some left feeling unwelcome in gay environments. Human sexuality is beautiful. It can also be, at times, a big, messy tent.

By 1986, psychiatry no longer viewed homosexuality as a mental illness, and with the priesthood becoming a closet for many gay men, one rarely heard denunciations of gays from the pulpit. A 2002 Los Angeles Times survey of priests concluded that 15 percent were gay; substantial literature on the topic suggests an even higher number.

Ratzinger could not abide a scientific consensus on people having no choice over their sexual orientation: a gay man could not will himself to become straight. The church was there to tell the man that if he couldn’t get right and marry a woman, then it was utterly sinful for him to have sex. Lesbians, likewise.

The real argument over gays was not about natural law, but free will. If somewhere between five and ten percent of society happened to be homosexual, and did not choose their sexual orientation, by what moral code could the church presuppose on them a life of total chastity?

Traditionalists point to a handful of scriptural passages, notably the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and The Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, as underpinnings for this position. But as Christian values have changed on slavery, why not on those few passages from 2,000 years ago powdered in a primitive view of human love?

Vatican officials around the pope are probably wondering if they should try some spin control on what Francis said, or let it play out and see what happens. They would be wise to lay back and watch the good press roll in. The church sure needs it. By any gauge, Francis is demonstrating himself to be a pope with a sense of moral values shaped by experiences in the world, not a monastic tower of teaching.

GlobalPost religion writer Jason Berry is author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.

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