TAMPA - A comment by Pope Francis apparently softening the church's stance on gays Monday morning sent ripples around the world, though local Catholics and gay rights advocates are still struggling to interpret the pontiff's statement. "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" Francis asked in a remarkably open and wide-ranging news conference. "We shouldn't marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society." It was an abrupt about-face from Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who signed a document in 2005 saying homosexuals should not be priests. Francis was much more conciliatory, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten. The comment doesn't bode any shift in Catholic policy on the topic, said John Morris, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. He acknowledged a lot of people around the world will hear and read the statement and interpret it in different ways.
"I don't think this signals any kind of change in what the church is doing," Morris said Monday. "It's just going at it from different angle." The Catholic Church traditionally has called homosexuality a sin and opposed gay marriage, and the pope's statement Monday does not change that, Morris said. "I don't know if this nudges (the church) in a different direction," he said. "The church always has had its stance on sins. The church accepts everyone. The sin is the issue." Others see the comment as the bump that pushes the Catholic Church toward a greater tolerance of gay priests and lay members. "To me, there are two striking things here," said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, a national lay movement of gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics. "One is the change in tone from the kinds of things we were used to hearing from the previous two popes. The fact is Francis talks about us with respect, as people of faith who are striving to know Jesus. I think that this is welcomed by a lot of people. "The other thing that strikes me is just how hungry people must be for that kind of respect," she said. "The fact is that people call this ground-breaking and revolutionary ... to be treated with respect makes that much of a difference for people. I wish all religious leaders would be so mindful of the power of their words." She said the papal comment on Monday "broke no theological ground. But as a leader, he can influence how bishops and cardinals around the world speak and act and how that translates to levels of individual parishes and church communities." Equality Florida, a statewide gay advocacy organization, is cautiously optimistic about the pope's comments, according to a statement released Monday afternoon. "We hope this change in tone from Pope Francis is a sign that policies within the church will continue to move forward and reflect the opinion of many of their own members who support full equality," said Brian Winfield, managing director of Equality Florida. The statement noted that the Catholic Church continues to be vocally opposed to the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian people. Equality Florida members are hoping the pope's shift in tone toward acceptance is a signal that church leaders will soften their stance, the statement said. How the church hierarchy will react is anybody's guess, said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida. "We hope that it will also signal a change in policies and encourage others within the church to speak out against those who use religion to deny rights and dehumanize others," she said. [email protected] (813) 259-7760