Pope Francis was reported to have said, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about the rumored Vatican “gay lobby” during an in-flight press conference on his way home from Brazil. A frenzy of parsing, speculation and optimistic chatter ensued involving everyone except the 200 cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church who remain dumbfounded and scrambling to spin the pope’s startling words in a way that does not negate the hard line anti-gay stance of his predecessor Benedict XVI.

What did Pope Francis really mean to say? And should the worldwide LGBT community dare to suspect that the Roman Catholic Church under his leadership will stop its condemnation of gay sex? It is essential to review what Francis did not say. He did not trot out the frustrating and idiotic nonsense about how God loves gay people but hates gay sex.  Either he has been told that that line is insulting or perhaps he himself recognizes its absurdity. We do not yet know for sure. Because he was responding specifically to a question about the supposed “gay lobby” at work in the Vatican, his remarks should not be considered a redefinition of sexual sin that still includes—at least until his next press conference—gay sex.

I find refreshing another part of his answer to the “gay lobby” question. He reportedly said that he has yet to find anyone in the Vatican carrying a business card that identifies himself as gay. In other words, Francis knows there will always be men, including Vatican prelates, who have sex with men, but they do not identify themselves in terms of that activity. More likely, they consider gay sex a shortcoming, a failure, or a slip-up on the road to spiritual perfection. They probably go to confession—perhaps to Francis himself—and unburden their souls of guilt over their “sin.” Absolution and forgiveness are given and the penitent priest, bishop or cardinal is back in the good graces of God. Is the repentant man “gay?” Most of us would say so, but Francis doesn’t seem to feel that way, and he is not alone in that perspective. His parents were Italian, and the gay rights movement in Italy has not grown apace with the rest of Europe because Italian men make a distinction between having sex with other men at various times in the course of their lives and actually being “gay.”  Many Italian men who have sex with their male friends are mystified by the American notion of becoming self-identified as part of “The Gay.”

That digression aside, the Pope’s response about the supposedly gay priest he appointed to investigate the Vatican Bank further elucidates his point of view regarding gay priests. He said that he had found via investigation nothing substantial in the accusations. He decried gay blackmail. Again, what is important here is what Francis did not say. He did not use the moment to accentuate some stern repudiation of gay sex. He did not express the kind of gay panic that usually results in a witch hunt. Instead, by saying “Who am I to judge?” he borrowed a page from the playbook of Jesus who, when presented with the woman caught in adultery, invited those without sin among her accusers to cast the first stones. Once the mob had gone home, he told the woman to go home and to sin no more.

It is important to understand that in Catholic tradition, sin and forgiveness constitute a repetitious cycle of life from cradle to grave. In the privacy of the confessional, a Catholic priest who receives the whispered account of gay sex, abortion or contraception or anything else imaginable that might trouble someone, knows full well that after he absolves the person from that sin, chances are good that he or she will be back a week later to confess it all over again, despite having had the strong intention to sin no more. This is really a very humane and healthy way to approach the human condition. Sin, from a Catholic perspective, is like dieting. You say you want to do it. You try to do it. You fail. You resolve again to do it. You fail a thousand times more. Does that make you an evil person? No. It makes you someone who, as the Pope said on Monday, “searches for the Lord and has good will.”

“Wait just a minute,” some gay Catholics responded when they read the reports of the press conference. “I don’t want to be forgiven for gay sex. It’s not sinful. The pope and his church are still against me even with this latest bit of patronizing nonsense!” I understand that anger. Personally, I never felt—not even for a single moment in all my years in the seminary and in the priesthood—that gay sex was a sin. I never once confessed it. I didn’t understand gay priests who agonized over it.

Later, I felt angry with those priests when they went on the offensive against marriage equality. Now, I just pity them because they are mostly a bunch of old men who have wasted and twisted their lives trying to live up to something that Jesus never wanted for them. Among those priests is Pope Francis, but he stands apart from his tribe in that he is not full of bitter recrimination for men like me who trust their instincts about the moral goodness of gay sex. I am quite sure that if I asked to be restored to the active ministry in the Catholic Church he would want me to renew my promise to be celibate, but he probably wouldn’t bat an eyelash if several hours later I confessed to him that I had sex with a Swiss guard shortly after our meeting. (There is also the rather complicated matter of my having acquired a husband. I don’t suspect Francis would feel good about that, but he’d probably not hesitate to accept a dinner invitation to our house before telling me so.)

Should we be encouraged by what Pope Francis said on Monday? Yes. Is the Catholic Church’s persecution of gay people over? No. But for the first time in the lives of anyone breathing today, there is indication that the worst may be over. Francis also said in the course of that press conference that he wanted women to have stronger leadership in the church. Although he repeated Pope John Paul II’s proclamation that women will never be ordained, he could start that process by making some female cardinals. (Cardinals do not have to be priests.) Make enough women cardinals, and the next conclave could find a pope who will extinguish the anti-gay inquisition once and for all. I hope I live to see it.

Tony Adams