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Pope Francis Strikes Tolerant Tone in Remarks on Gay Catholics

July 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pope Francis drew new attention today with some surprising remarks about gay Catholics, as he wrapped up a trip to the Americas that drew enormous crowds.

For 82 minutes, the pope fielded questions on his flight home from Brazil. And for the first time ever, there were no restrictions. Francis was asked directly about a so-called gay lobby within the Vatican, an allegedly powerful influence inside the church. He struck a conciliatory tone on homosexuality in general and within the priestly ranks.

POPE FRANCIS, leader of Catholic Church: Everyone writes about the gay lobby. I still haven’t found anyone who gave me an identity card in the Vatican with “gay” written on it. If someone is gay and he searches for the lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The comments suggested a shift in acceptance, but not in Roman Catholic doctrine, which still holds that homosexual acts are disordered. At the same time, Francis upheld the longstanding prohibition on women in the priesthood. But he did advocate an expanded role and cited an exalted role model.

POPE FRANCIS: The madonna, Maria, was more important than the apostles, bishops, deacons, and priests. Women are more important than bishops and priests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The pope’s comments came as he returned from his first trip abroad since his March election. The 76-year-old Argentine had attended World Youth Day events in Brazil, including two huge outdoor services in Rio de Janeiro.

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On Saturday, he told young people in soccer-mad Brazil, which hosts next year’s World Cup, to set their eyes on a higher prize.

POPE FRANCIS: Jesus offers us something more than the World Cup. He offers us the possibility of a fruitful life without end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He also exhorted Brazilian bishops to get out of their parishes and spread more of their Catholic faith, which has seen many of the faithful leaving for evangelical Protestant sects. Then on Sunday in the shadow of Rio’s famed Christ the Redeemer mountaintop icon, an estimated three million people gathered on famed Copacabana Beach.