Since my post on Elton John admiring Pope Francis, lots of people are writing me to ring various changes on “Elton John is gay. Don’t you realize that is a sin?” and “He has very false ideas of marriage and thinks the pope supports them. You can’t evangelize on the basis of a lie.” and “Pope Francis does secretly support gay marriage and we should all set our hair on fire and run in circles” and “The new evangelization is for Catholics, not for non-Catholics” and various other statements that generally suggest that a lot of Catholics regard the attraction Francis has for disaffected people, not as an opportunity, but as a threat.
No one is talking about creating illusions in order to evangelize, or affirming people in their delusions that this or that sin is really just ducky. We are talking about the fact that Francis is an obviously genuine and good person and that this is attractive to many hitherto disaffected people. For those focused on evangelism, it should be seen as good news and an opportunity when a member of the aggressively secular Brit elite breaks with the peer pressure and deep anti-Catholic hostility of his confreres to say of the casually and conventionally hated pope, “He is a compassionate, loving man who wants everybody to be included in the love of God.” That’s not the done thing in those social circles, where hatred of Catholics and Christ is as conventional and expected as wine and cheese soirees. It is, in fact, remarkable: like hearing Richard Dawkins suddenly round on Daniel Dennett and say, “Why are you so *hard* on Christians? They aren’t so bad.” It’s not a salvific profession of faith, but it ‘s not nothing either. It’s a start.
Does Elton John (or the millions of other people attracted to Francis) have anything like a clear grasp of what Francis actually believes or is trying to do? Of course not. (But then again, neither do the many conservatives and Reactionaries panicking about him.) But though many attracted to him are wildly wrong in their belief that he seeks to usher in the Great Pelvic Millennium, they are not wrong in seeing in him somebody who a) lives an obvious life of goodness, holiness, and integrity; b) somebody who loves them and c) somebody they can trust. To quote one very irreligious Seattle kid’s impression, “He seems like somebody I’d share a joint with.” This sort of remark is, to many highly pious conservative Catholics with their deeply Calvinist sense of rectitude and their conviction that man was made for the law, not the the law for man, an indictment of the pope–just as the popularity of Jesus with whores and collaborators was an indictment of Jesus. But that is because many highly pious conservative Catholics conceive of their faith primarily in culture war terms: purging sin from their own souls, sinners from the Church, and repelling boarders who seek to *invade* the Church in order to soil and sully it. For such a mentality, evangelism is intolerably dangerous because if you just go out into the highways and byways and invite any old riff raff in, they will invariably behave exactly as Elton John and so many others are behaving: reading the Church through God Knows What Personal Agendas and screwing everything up. So instead of seeing the interest and admiration of an Elton John as an opportunity, it is responded to as a threat. And the hostility very quickly transfers to Francis himself since, let’s face it, he is the one who keep saying and doing things that attract the admiration of these upsetting sinners with their alien agendas.
This is, not to put too fine a point on it, exactly why the Pharisees were upset with Jesus too. They had a conception of holiness primarily as a thing requiring quarantine, not as a conquering power. It is notable that the very first miracle of healing recorded by Matthew is that of a leper. What is even more notable is the method Jesus chose to perform this miracle. He could have said, “Be healed!” and that would have been enough (as he showed when he healed the centurion’s servant (8:5-13). But instead Jesus does something very deliberate and significant: he touches the leper (8:3).
Now under the old covenant, such an action was regarded as defiling. Touching a leper meant you were ritually defiled and could not go up to the Temple to worship. It meant you had to go through a whole week of purification. Uncleanness, sin, and defilement were understood to be more powerful influences than cleanness, sanctity, and purity. In the old covenant, sin was the superior power. When someone afflicted with some ritual uncleanness that symbolizes sin touched someone who was clean, the “flow” of power went in one direction only: the clean person was defiled but the unclean person was not sanctified.
However, when Jesus touched the leper something astounding happened: the leper became clean and Jesus was not defiled. The flow of power was, for the first time, reversed.
But not everyone can see this. For the Pharisees have learned the right lesson but drawn the wrong conclusion from the law of Moses. Under the old law, ritual defilement was intended as a kind of sign or shadow. It was meant to show us in our pride that we could not, by our own strength and power, keep ourselves clean from sin. The power of sin is greater than our power of sanctity. So the Pharisees understand sanctity in only one way: separation. Indeed, the word “Pharisee” comes from the Hebrew term meaning “separate”. They reasoned that if the power of sin is greater than our power of sanctity then the solution was to separate themselves from all that was unclean and even all that had touched what was unclean. In short, they apply to their personal lives a ritual code that was originally intended only for the Temple. They attempt to keep themselves as pure as the priests serving in the Temple. And so they separate themselves from the Gentiles, from touching the dead and dying, from lepers, and from menstruating women. They are right to see in these ritual prohibitions an image or sign of lifelessness. But they are wrong to conclude that by separating themselves they can avoid the sin which ritual uncleanness signifies. And so in an ironic way, they take the mirror of ritual uncleanness that God has given them in the Mosaic Law, and instead of seeing in it an image of their own uncleanness and defilement by sin, the turn it around and say to those around them, “See how unclean you are!”
This conception of the power of the kingdom to overcome sin is often forgotten in our culture war approaches to evangelization. We see a sinner who doesn’t get it completely, and instead of seeing an opportunity, see only a sinner who confirms our fear that the pope is affirming sinners in their sin, just as the Pharisees saw only a deciever who confirmed whores and collaborators in theirs.
But all such discussion is disconnected from how conversion works as a rule. Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples describes five stages through which people pass on their way to becoming intentional disciples of Jesus Christ (initial trust, curiosity, spiritual opennness, spiritual seeking, and intentional discipleship). Please read this to get the general hang of this.
Elton John and millions like him are at the stage of initial trust. Of *course* they are not disciples and of *course* they do not see any need to repent at this stage. But they have a basic trust in one of Jesus’s friends and are, many of them (including, for all we know, Elton John) developing a curiosity about what makes this man tick. What makes this man tick is Jesus Christ. So the smart approach to this is to let grace build on that by inviting people to come to know Jesus better. The foolish approach to that is accuse the person with a flickering sense of trust of being a liar who is twisting the truth and then demanding that they shut up, or turn their lives upside down instantly because we say so, or just leave because their sinful kind are not wanted here. Much of what conservative Catholics are doing is imagining that we need to grab somebody by the lapels, shove them against the wall, and hiss, “You have to change.” Christianity is about the encounter with Jesus. When that encounter happens, it is the *sinner* who says “I have to change” (as, for example, when Peter says “Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” Notably, Jesus does not say, “Go away from me, Peter, for you are a sinful man”, the very thing so many Catholics are eager to tell Elton John and other disaffected-but-curious people) Indeed, Jesus does not begin conversations with sinners by telling them what’s wrong with them. He begins by eliciting trust and curiosity, precisely like Francis does. This is why Francis said that the faith cannot be reduce to a disconnected set of moral preachments apart from the person of Christ. We have to get that.
Will the sinner have to repent? Of course! But sinners repent when they realize they cannot live their lives in a way pleasing to Jesus by going on as they are. Jesus does not begin his relationship with Peter by telling him he is a gutless coward who will deny him. He begins it by revealing himself as somebody Peter trusts and feels compelled to follow despite his own sense of inadequacy. And he begins by calling Peter to mission–to be a fisher of men.
At present, many people are merely at the stage of trust and curiosity. Our task is to cultivate that, not stamp it out–and not to accuse the pope of being a heretic or threat because sinners find his witness attractive.