Aboard the Papal Plane (CNN)Pope Francis said Sunday that Christians owe apologies to gays and others who have been offended or exploited by the church, remarks that some Catholics hailed as a breakthrough in the church's tone toward homosexuality.
Pope says Christians should apologize to gay people
"I repeat what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: that they must not be discriminated against, that they must be respected and accompanied pastorally," Francis said at a press conference aboard the papal plane returning from Armenia.
"The Church must ask forgiveness for not behaving many times -- when I say the Church, I mean Christians! The Church is holy, we are sinners!"
As he often does during unscripted moments -- particularly papal news conferences -- the Pope spoke expansively, saying the church should seek forgiveness for a number of historical slights committed in its name.
"I believe that the church not only should apologize to the person who is gay whom it has offended," he added, "but has to apologize to the poor, to exploited women, to children exploited for labor; it has to ask forgiveness for having blessed many weapons."
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America magazine, called the Pope's apology to gays and lesbians "a groundbreaking moment."
"While St. John Paul II apologized to several groups in 2000 -- the Jewish people, indigenous peoples, immigrants and women, among them -- no pope has ever come close to apologizing to the LGBT community. And the Pope is correct of course. First, because forgiveness is an essential part of the Christian life. And second, because no group feels more marginalized in the church today than LGBT people."
The Pope's comments came in response to a question about a German Cardinal who said the Catholic Church should apologize for being "very negative" about gays. The Pope was also asked whether Christians bear some blame for hatred toward the LGBT community, as horrifically demonstrated in the Orlando massacre at a gay night club that killed 49 people on June 12.
Repeating the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church about respecting and not discriminating against gays, Pope Francis said that one could condemn certain behavior.
"One can condemn, but not for theological reasons, but for reasons of political behavior...Certain manifestations are a bit too offensive for others, no?
"But these are things that have nothing to do with the problem. The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge? And we must accompany them well."
Francis first uttered that rhetorical question -- Who am I to judge gay people? -- in 2013, also during a news conference on the papal plane. His comments were hailed as a breakthrough for a church that has historically condemned homosexuality, often in harsh terms. Francis has not changed church doctrine that calls homosexual acts sinful, but he has shown a more merciful approach to people on the margins, including gays and lesbians.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic gay rights group, called the Pope's remarks "an immense blessing of healing."
"No pope has said more welcoming words to LGBT people than when Pope Francis today offered his recommendation that the Church -- indeed all Christians -- should apologize for the harm religious traditions have caused to LGBT people. The pope's statement was simple, yet powerful, and it fell from his lips so easily."
As is often the case, the Pope's press conference encompassed a number of controversial questions. Here are the Pope's answers about Brexit, former Pope Benedict XVI and why he used the word "genocide" to describe the murder of more than 1 million Armenians in the early 20th century.
"For me, unity is always superior to conflict, but there are different forms of unity and also brotherhood. and here I come to the EU -- brotherhood is better than enmity or distance and bridges are better than walls.
"The step which the EU has to take to recover the strength of its roots is a step of creativity and healthy 'separation;' that is, to give more independence, more freedom to the countries of the EU, to think of another form of union, to be creative in jobs, in the economy..."
"There is something that is not working in that unwieldy union, but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater, let's try to jump-start things, to recreate .. today the two key words for the EU are creativity and fecundity."
Pope Francis said that while Turkey has, "a right to protest," he has always used the word genocide, since his time in Argentina, and again last year quoting John Paul II so "it would have sounded very strange," he said, not to use it again.
"In Argentina, when you spoke about the extermination of Armenians, one always used the word genocide. I did not know another word ... When I came to Rome, I heard the other words, 'The Great Evil' and the Armenian term which I do not know how to say, and they told me that ... using 'genocide' is offensive, that you have to say something else. I have also spoken about three genocides of the last century, always three, first the Armenian, then Hitler, and the last one is Stalin."
"After I heard the tone of the President's speech and also with my past with this word, which I uttered last year in St. Peter's publicly, it would have sounded very strange not to say the same word."
In response to a question about whether there are two Popes in the Vatican, a story which had received headlines recently because of a comment by Pope Benedict's personal secretary who said that the Pope Emeritus was part of an "expanded papacy," Francis said, "There is only one Pope."
"[Benedict] is the Pope Emeritus, the wise grandpa. He is the man who guards my back with his prayers."