Some of my best friends are Roman Catholic.
Okay, that's pushing it. But I do have Roman Catholic friends, several of them in fact, none cut from the same cookie cutter as any other. Some think proudly like Jesuits, some are former evangelicals and carry the spirited commitment of any brand new believer, any new convert. Some are discouraged, really angry about thousands of abused children and a church that seems more interested in hiding its sins than healing its hurting.
I really don't know what my Roman Catholic friends think about what the Pope said a couple days ago in an impromptu news conference when, among other things, he chatted about gays. Perhaps a couple of those friends might put themselves in the camp of Pope Francis's two predecessors, who had nothing but derision--well, condemnation--for same sex stuff. But I'm pretty sure that some of them believe the church moved, almost miraculously, into the 21st century when the new Pope exhibited a whole new openness toward gay folks.
And he did it in such a jocular way. He comes out of the jet's private quarters as if he were, well, a politician, just shucking and jiving, as if he's just one of the boys, and he goes on and on for 80 minutes. A ton of pomp and circumstance--of pope and circumstance--just fell away, and he proved without a doubt that what people have been saying about him, that he's a Pope of the Folks, someone more at home on a city bus than in the popemobile, is absolutely true.
What most observers have made clear since that startling statement is that what he said doesn't really differ from traditional church teaching. He didn't advocate gay marriage, for instance, nor open church office to any practicing homosexual person. But in the way he spoke, in tone, he was on a whole different continent than his two predecessors--vastly more tolerant, even accepting. And let's face it--tone can be a game-changer.
Just to be sure, here's what he said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” even using the English word gay. But then came what seems to me to be the real shocker: "Who am I to judge?"
Well, for starters, he's the Pope, the pontiff, the supreme prelate of the Roman Catholic Church, the man in succession of Jesus's own disciples. Traditionally, when he speaks, the church listens, not just with their ears but with their lives. For centuries, tons of Roman Catholics looked to the Holy See for the answer to every last question on matters of faith.
On those matters expressly, the pope--whoever wore the hat--was not only right but infallible, and infallible is a word that doesn't offer much nuance. "Who am I to judge?" isn't just a catchy phrase, it's darn near heresy. It's not my job, a Calvinist, to hunt derelict theology when it appears in Roman Catholics pontiffs. I'm not interested in the least in blackening the eye or eyes of the new one. But that usage blew me away.
And I liked it. Sure, it's got a relativist's spirit; sure, it seems to not draw a line in the sand, sure, it feels like a sea change; but it also carries far more of a human spirit. Whether or not this guy is infallible isn't my call, but it seems clear that he isn't so darn sure he is.
What he said doesn't make him a closet Protestant. He's not turning over church doctrine or traditional Roman Catholic teaching or somehow violating the office. But he is humanizing the hat and the robe and the zany car that comes with the office.
It was a stunning line; and for a ton of reasons, I suppose, I loved it.