The recent interview with Pope Francis, “the people’s pope,” was yet another sign that a fresh new breeze is stirring the dusty air of the Vatican. That makes the more stodgy types really uncomfortable, of course, but it brings hope to millions of Catholics who’d felt cut off from the church due to its unrelenting focus on a few hot button issues that are on ground level, where people live and work and have their being.
Acceptance of gays and lesbians. Abortion rights. People who dare to use contraceptives for birth control.
It’s not as if Pope Francis has challenged church doctrine on any of these issues — he hasn’t. He’s not about to announce that any of those are fully acceptable for fully fledged participants in the Roman Catholic Church.
But he has expressed a far less judgmental attitude toward those who may color outside the lines. Earlier he had commented to reporters “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
But for many people, Catholics and Protestants alike, it’s all about judgment, about drawing lines, about distinguishing between those who are holy enough and those who fall short.
I know that counter-argument, that you have to have some standards, that if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything, yada yada yada.
But sometimes we may draw much sharper lines than God ever intended, and let grace fall victim to legalism.
Read the gospels and you’ll discover that Jesus was constantly criticized because he refused to stay within the lines. He ate and drank with known sinners so often that he was called a glutton and a drunkard. He touched people who were considered unclean. He let women show affection to him. He preferred to forgive than to condemn. He worked on the Sabbath. He bucked tradition and authority. His life and ministry were centered on love for all people, not on rules that divide people.
The pope, ideally, is to be Jesus’ number one representative on earth. I’m no expert on Catholic matters and remain firmly committed to my Protestant way of thinking, but it seems to me that Pope Francis shows more of Jesus’ spirit of grace and compassion than the Vatican has seen in a long, long time.
Whatever our religious tradition or lack of tradition, we could learn something from the pontiff’s spirit of humility and grace.
Long may he live.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.