Pope Francis waves at the end of a mass in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican on October 13, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

I am not Catholic. I am not a believer.

And yet, as a South African, I am aware of the positive and negative roles the Catholic Church can play. It was outspoken against apartheid, and its liberation theology (controversial within the church) inspired a generation. In my personal experience, it was a Catholic school in Johannesburg that both defied apartheid’s race quotas and welcomed gay families, including my own.

Yet during the height of the AIDS crisis Cardinal Napier dismissed government efforts to distribute condoms as ineffectual. As Archbishop of Durban, he spoke from the epicenter of the epidemic. More recently Napier stated, “I can't be accused of homophobia because I don't know any homosexuals.”

In South Africa, as elsewhere, the church has stood up for the oppressed and has been a force for social change; it has also been the source of stagnation and prejudice. At times – such as preaching against condoms in the midst of the AIDS crisis – these are shortcomings of unforgivable magnitude.

I am unlikely to agree with Pope Francis on many issues, but unlike Cardinal Napier, he knows homosexuals and I am willing to listen to what he has to say.

In fact it is hard not to pay attention, because Pope Francis is causing a stir.

He is the first Jesuit to become pope and he is focusing on problems of poverty and injustice and away from a single-minded obsession with sexual morality.

He speaks of a church for the poor and does not hold back from criticizing opulence and ostentation within the church: “One cannot speak of poverty,” he said, “if one does not experience poverty.”

The pope wields considerable influence, both as the head of a sovereign state with observer status at the United Nations and as leader of a major world religion. Yet his tastes are simple, even austere, and in this he sets himself apart from his predecessors. A simple wooden chair has replaced the papal throne, and he drives around his small state in a modest car.

He is unorthodox in his ways, breaking with decorum to pick up the phone, or even pose for a “selfie” that circulates on Facebook.

How does this refreshing approach to the papacy affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people? In some ways the pope is simply articulating, clearly and unambiguously, what the Catholic Church has long stood for. The Holy See has publicly maintained that it opposes unjust discrimination against homosexual people, including criminalization of consensual sex. The church is also against violence, and opposes the death penalty. It stands for the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings.

So what is different about Pope Francis? On the one hand his views are quite orthodox , but on the other his approach signals a subtle shift with some radical implications.

The shift is one of emphasis: he is not questioning the moral underpinning of the church in relation to homosexuality, but he is questioning its central importance. He is saying that even if the church disapproves of homosexuality and regards it as sinful, this does not override a fundamental societal obligation of humane treatment and respect for the dignity of every human being.

“The church,” he said, “sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.” He has said that “abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods” are not topics that need to be spoken about all the time. There are more important concerns in the world such as poverty and injustice, than an obsession with sexual ethics.

He is also saying that the church should have a more open and inclusive ministry. He has been quite outspoken on homosexuality. Recently, when asked by a journalist about his views, he posed a rhetorical question: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”

Unfortunately, many Catholic officials and communities have not adopted this inclusive approach. In countries around the world church officials have been complicit in the persecution of LGBT people, by supporting (or failing to condemn) discriminatory legislation, and by speaking about LGBT people in dehumanizing ways.

This is particularly harmful in countries where the church has strong influence and where social attitudes are hostile. In these settings, hostile language contributes to a climate of violence against LGBT people. Bishops in Nigeria, Uganda, the Dominican Republic, and Cameroon have recently supported draconian legislation or made derogatory statements that contradict church teachings. Yet the Holy See has remained silent.

The pope has noted that while religious leaders have the right to advocate specific moral positions, this does not mean forcing others to adopt these positions. During the Argentine same-sex marriage debates, he defended the church’s moral position, while proposing an alternative that would recognize civil unions.

Pope Francis has already set the tone that will help moderate the church’s public discourse on sexuality. He can do more. Pope Francis should publicly condemn violence against LGBT people. He should call for the decriminalization of consensual sexual relationships and support the repeal of other unjust criminal penalties. And he should call for greater legal protections for LGBT people.