When the Vatican is criticized for having gay clergy among its ranks, there is typically a divided response: those who attack this alleged hypocrisy and those who deny the reports, defending the church at every turn. When the pope himself acknowledges a gay lobby in the Vatican, it's something else entirely.
Yet that is exactly what happened on June 6 in a meeting with a Latin American Catholic group. When asked about the difficulties of being in charge of the Roman Curia, Pope Francis said,
"In the Curia, there are also holy people, really, there are holy people. But there also is a stream of corruption, there is that as well, it is true... The 'gay lobby' is mentioned, and it is true, it is there ... We need to see what we can do," according to the Chilean website Reflexión y Liberación and translated by the Catholic blog Rorate Caeli.
It appears that the pope is referring not to an interest group with a political objective, as most Americans would come to understand the word lobby, but a shady network or group of like-minded people, which is a common use for the word in Italian and Spanish. While this may come as a surprise to many, others have been pointing out the existence of gay clergy for years. In fact, the Vatican did not publicly deny the comment or its truth as they have done in the past.
What does this mean for the Catholic Church?
As an organization whose foundational tenets have changed little over thousands of years, it's no surprise that progressive ideas haven't taken hold. Despite this, the church is increasingly being forced to come to grips with a changing world in which it is desperately trying to stay relevant. The number of global Catholics has been rapidly declining in recent years, especially in North America and Europe, with the number of those actively practicing presumably even lower.
However, it would be naïve to think that gay clergy is a recent development and perhaps equally so that the church would gain followers by opening its arms to gays. In fact, the tone of the Pope's statement was to the contrary — as if this were a disease that needed to be cured. Francis has been tackling infamous corruption and inefficiency within the Vatican walls and his reference to the "gay lobby" was one of a problem that needs to be fixed.
This leaves us wondering what is contributing to the decline in the number of Catholics? Is it because public views on social issues have progressed to a point to which the Vatican is incapable of adapting? Or have followers been driven away by hypocrisy, highlighted by the ever-present child molestation scandals?
If the first is true, the Vatican is plumb out of luck. If the second is, Francis is hitting all the right notes — even if he'd probably like that "gay lobby" comment back. Consciously or not, he has been actively changing the image of hypocrisy built up by predecessors who have lavished in the trappings of extreme wealth instead of devoting serious energy to helping the poor. He chooses to live not in the opulent papal apartments but simple Vatican guesthouses and has ordered an overhaul of the Vatican bureaucracy, bringing together reform-minded church leaders from around the world, among other things.
Public reaction to the pope's comment may very well provide some answers — will people even care? Practicing Catholics might see the issue as a sign that Francis is doing more of the right thing. Critics will likely remain critics. The question is, what will the fence-sitters — those who have been disillusioned by the church's scandals, yet have been drawn back in by Francis — think about it? This is more complicated, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the church — possibly Francis himself — come out with a statement on the issue in order to clarify and reign in these sought-after constituents. One can imagine he will choose is words wisely this time.