Pope Francis struck on Monday the most conciliatory tone towards homosexuality ever expressed by a pope, in line with the "culture of encounter" he spoke of during his triumphant visit to Brazil.
"If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" the pope said in a remarkably candid news conference on the 12-hour flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome.
Francis strolled to the back of the aircraft and talked to incredulous reporters for a full hour and 20 minutes, answering delicate questions on sex scandals, the Vatican bank, divorced and remarried Catholics and the role of women in the Church.
“He took questions with no filters or limits and nothing off the record,” John L Allen, a Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, who was on board the flight, wrote on his blog.
Calling for a “theology of women” and a greater role for them in Catholic life, warning against judging gays and hinting at possible changes about banning communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, the pontiff’s comments appear to stand outside some of the Church' stricter lines.
“He insists on dialoguing and discussing things that kept people at the margins in Catholic life in the past 34 years -- gender and sexuality among them,” Steven M. Avella, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a professor of history at Marquette University, told Discovery News.
“Although focused on priests, his reaction to gays and lesbians, was I believe directed to all people," Avella said. "This makes perfect sense to any man or woman of good pastoral instincts -- of course the first reaction of any loving pastor is mercy, love and the suspension of judgment. His comments on women too seemed to open a door seemingly closed tight by John Paul II."
Although Francis appears to be the first pontiff in decades to reach beyond traditional Catholics, he's not the only pope who has stepped outside conservative parameters.
In his Sept. 10, 1978 Angelus address, John Paul I, “the smiling pope,” boldly challenged the traditional vision of theology stating that God had a "feminine nature" and was "more of a mother than a father."
He died suddenly 18 days later, only 33 days after being elected pope, of a heart attack. Pointing to intrigues between conservatives and liberals in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, conspiracy theories flourished suggesting he was the victim of foul play.