At the top of Monday's NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams seized on Pope Francis expressing compassion toward gay people of faith and framed the comments as a major shift for the Catholic Church: "Making history. We're on the Pope's plane as he makes some stunning comments that sure sounded revolutionary..." [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]
Later introducing a report on the topic, Williams proclaimed: "To the journalists sitting in the back of his plane flying him back to the Vatican from Rio, the Pope's words today during a surprise airborne news conference seemed, if not revolutionary, certainly newsworthy and historic in terms of the Catholic Church."
In a top-of-the-show tease on Tuesday's NBC Today, echoing the hyperbole from Williams, co-host Savannah Guthrie announced: "Candid and controversial. The Pope's comments on homosexuality reverberating around the globe this morning. Is the Church changing its attitudes?"
In the report that followed, correspondent Anne Thompson touted "what appears to be a change in attitudes toward gay priests and gay people." She asserted: "Surprise is a hallmark of Pope Francis' short papacy....But nothing has stunned the Catholic world like his comments on the flight back from Rio."
After Thompson's report, co-host Matt Lauer grilled New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan on the Pope's remarks:
> So there is no real change here, is what you're telling me. That this is not a change of ideology, a change of philosophy. The Church still views sex acts between homosexuals as a sin, so nothing has changed there?
> And yet it's being called a watershed moment for gay priests and gays who would like to become priests. Do you see it as that?
> Has he overruled the Pope Emeritus? Because Benedict signed a document about eight years ago which banned, basically, gays from becoming priests.
Lauer even tried to foster division between Cardinal Dolan and the Pontiff:
I want to ask you if you're on the same page exactly with this Pope. Because you've made some comments of late that have angered some in the gay community. You said that gay couples are entitled to friendship. You wrote a blog that compared gay Catholics, among others, to people with dirty hands. And while same-sex marriage is a big leap from what we're talking about today, when the Supreme Court had that historic decision on DOMA, you said it was a tragic day for marriage and the nation. Are you on the same page with the Pope?
In his final question to Dolan, Lauer lamented: "And yet, no change in tone when it comes to women and the priesthood?" Dolan pushed back: "Keep in mind, Matt...the Pope's job is to hand on, with it's full purity and integrity, the teaching of the Church. He can't make it up, he can't change it. It's not some policy like the board of governors changes."
Here is a full transcript of Thompson's July 30 report on Today:
7:00AM ET TEASE:
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Candid and controversial. The Pope's comments on homosexuality reverberating around the globe this morning. Is the Church changing its attitudes? This morning, Cardinal Dolan, Americans highest ranking Catholic official weighs in live.
7:07AM ET SEGMENT:
MATT LAUER: We want to turn now to an historic comment by Pope Francis on the subject of homosexuality. It's causing a stir among Catholics and activists all around the world. NBC's Anne Thompson is in Rome with more on this for us. Anne, good morning to you.
[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Pope's Olive Branch; Creates Stir With Comments on Gay Priests]
ANNE THOMPSON: Good morning, Matt. You know, those five words the Pope spoke, "Who am I to judge?," certainly has people talking this morning about what appears to be a change in attitudes toward gay priests and gay people.
Surprise is a hallmark of Pope Francis' short papacy. From paying his own hotel bill the day after he was elected, to his love of the crowds. But nothing has stunned the Catholic world like his comments on the flight back from Rio. Towards the end of an extraordinary hour and twenty minute press conference, asked about the so-called gay lobby inside the Vatican, the Pope said, "If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?" A sentiment largely welcomed outside New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I do think it was a good move, yeah. I think people need to be encouraged to not judge other people based on certain things.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When Pope Francis said he wasn't going to judge anyone, I think this is a tremendous breakthrough for the Vatican, because this is what the modern Church should be about.
THOMPSON: At Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral, opinions were more divided.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN B: I don't think that he would ever condone gay marriage. It's just not natural. But there's a difference between supporting someone who is gay and supporting something that's immoral.
THOMPSON: But for this gay Catholic, it's a start.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN C: Let's talk about this as mature adults and let's get out of our stereotypes and let's start dealing.
THOMPSON: And for those in the priesthood, it is perhaps most important.
FATHER THOMAS REESE [SR. ANALYST FOR NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER]: What's key here is that the Pope is saying that gay people can be good people, can be good priests.
THOMPSON: Now, while the Pope offered a conciliatory message on gays, he was very definitive about the issue of women priests. He said no, that issue had been decided long ago by the Church. Matt.
LAUER: Alright, Anne Thompson in Rome this morning. Anne, thank you very much.