When the 266th Pope was elected, I was not ones of those people clogging the Vatican’s streets or even ones of those glued to a television in this country. When I backpacked through Europe in the summer of 1998, I visited St. Peter’s, marveled at the grandeur of that building and swooned over the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pieta. But my warm feelings ended there. The Pope—whoever inhabited the role—was always remote to me, in part because he usually took the hard line with faith (predictably), even advocating against use of contraception and other issues that affected people’s health.
When I came out of the closet, this feeling was deepened when so many of them have expressed anti-gay stances. Now I had multiple reasons to dislike or flat-out ignore anything to do with the pope.
So when the new one replaced the one who had only lasted a few years, I yawned.
And then he began his work in the world and, of course, the press followed. And when he opened his mouth, strange things came out, like a comment he made in July of this year: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will,” he said, “who am I to judge?” (You can read about many more of the wonderful things he’s done, including earning Sarah Palin’s label of being “liberal”: http://bit.ly/17weXk4)
This is someone I can get behind, for he seems to have a generous view of the teaching he is in charge of.
Perhaps among the man books of the Bible with which Pope Francis is familiar, one in particular has inspired his outlook: the Book of James. James hits a lot of same high points that Paul stressed to his audience, though James does so with a little more directness. He has a lot to say, and most of it is rather interesting: embrace trials, for these result in good qualities, like perseverance (1:2-3); treat the rich and poor equally (2:1); and mercy triumphs over judgment (2:13).
James is actually preoccupied with judgment in several places. For one, he feels that teachers will be judged more strictly than others (by God, presumably) (3:1). Which I assume means they need to be extra diligent in what they teach and how they comport themselves in life. He also states that those who judge actual speak against God’s law and in so doing, they judge the law (4:11). The line here suggests that God doesn’t need anyone’s help in this department, which is why James asks, “who are you to judge your neighbor”?
And just when you think he’s on to something solid, he offers this nugget: “whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (5:20). I appreciate the impulse—the idea seems rooted in caring about your peers—however, something important escapes James here: how can you point out a person’s faults (the error to which he refers) without judging?
So although James seems to be offering a contradictory message—and this is really what a number of religious people have seemingly adopted—many haven’t, choosing instead the stance that involves less judgment and more compassion, understanding. Thankfully, with Pope Francis leading the Catholic Church, this is the message that will catch on in greater numbers. And hopefully this will at least cause people like me—who don’t identify as religious—to at least develop more respect for those who are and the faith they practice, regardless of the denomination.