ROME (Christian Examiner) – Pope Francis has again signaled a greater level of openness to gays in the Catholic Church after he agreed with a German cardinal who said last week Catholic Christians should apologize to homosexuals for the way they have been treated.
The pontiff made the comment while in a discussion with reporters on a return flight to Rome from Armenia Sunday. Asked if he agreed with Cardinal Reinhard Marx's assessment about the church's need to apologize, he said he did.
And it isn't just gays to whom the church should apologize, the leader of Catholics worldwide said.
"I think that the Church not only should apologize to the person who is gay whom it has offended," Francis said. "But we must also apologize to the poor as well, to the women who have been exploited, to children exploited for labor. It must apologize for having blessed so many weapons."
"[Gays] should not be discriminated against. They should be respected, accompanied pastorally," he added later.
Marx, described by many as one of the closest advisors to Pope Francis, said in Dublin four days ago that the church had for centuries marginalized gay people. In the wake of the Orlando shooting at the Pulse nightclub – a gay bar – he said he believed the way gay people are treated in society and by the church is "a scandal and terrible."
In 2014, Marx roiled the Vatican when he said there was some value in a long-term homosexual relationship where the partners were committed to one another.
"We have to respect the decisions of people. We have to respect also, as I said in the first synod on the family – some were shocked but I think it's normal – you cannot say that a relationship between a man and a man [when] they are faithful [that] that is nothing, that has no worth," Marx said.
That idea, however, doesn't gel with the church's longstanding teaching on homosexuality and the family. While the church teaches that having homosexual desires is not a sin, it says homosexual acts are and that homosexuals should remain celibate.
In spite of that, Francis has for three years now sent signals that the church is willing to open its doors wider to homosexuals. Three years ago, Francis told reporters (also on a plane) that he could not "judge" gay people.
"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge? The catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says they should not be marginalized because of this [orientation] but that they must be integrated into society," Francis said in 2013.
Aboard the plane Sunday, Pope Francis reiterated his statement from 2013, adding that the church's apology must come with a request for forgiveness.
Conservatives in the Vatican walked back Pope Francis's earlier statements on homosexuality in 2013, restating longstanding Catholic doctrine on human sexuality. It is likely they will here, as well.
Already, rumors have circulated that concerned priests and bishops are visiting the retired Pope Benedict XVI to express concerns of Francis's continued left drift.
Francis said he had also heard the rumors, but insisted that Benedict had "sent them packing."
"There is only one pope," he said.
In addition to possible changes on gays in the church, Francis also defended his idea of the church having open doors with respect to women and said his earlier statements about the possible inclusion of women as deacons caused a stir. He said the church was not yet opening the office to women, but only expressing a willingness to hear their voices.
The desire to express an apology to gays is not the first such statement Francis has issued.
Earlier this year, Francis said "separated brethren" – Protestant Christians – could still enjoy salvation through the church, but that the church couldn't expect unity without apologizing and seeking "mercy and forgiveness" for four centuries of contentious relations and religious warfare. That statement was loosely considered an apology by many Protestants.