The latest drama manufactured by the culture war industrial complex is a tiff over the White House’s guest list for Pope Francis’ welcome appearance today. Apparently there are some queer people among the 15,000 people who got invited, including Gene Robinson, an openly gay retired Episcopal bishop, and Mateo Williamson, a transgender activist with the Catholic LGBT caucus Dignity USA. A Vatican bureaucrat expressed concern that photos of the pope and LGBT people “could be interpreted as an endorsement of their activities.” The right-wing blogosphere has seized upon this opportunity to accuse the Obama administration of playing political games. But the question I have as a Christian is why the Vatican is trying to protect Pope Francis from acting like Jesus.
This Vatican bureaucrat echoes the concerns of the first century Pharisees when Jesus engaged in behavior that “could be interpreted as an endorsement” of tax collectors and other sinners. At the beginning of the gospel of Matthew, after Jesus calls Matthew, he goes to a big feast at his house. It’s always been fascinating to me that Jesus told Matthew, “Follow me,” and then instead of Matthew leaving everything about his old life behind, Jesus goes to a party with all of Matthew’s sinner friends. Had Jesus gone to that party with a bullhorn to condemn the sinners and call them to repentance, the Pharisees wouldn’t have had a problem. Whatever Jesus did at that party, he didn’t express his disapproval with enough clarity to make the Pharisees comfortable, so they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11).
Jesus responds to the Pharisees in a touchingly pastoral way. He says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (vv. 12-13). I haven’t always noticed the pastoral side of this statement. In other contexts, Jesus rips into the religious elites by calling out their hypocrisy. But at this early point in his relationship with them, he’s trying to be conciliatory, telling them that they’re “well” and “righteous” but that he needs to focus on those who are “sick” and “sinners.” Christians who have been indoctrinated to say that everyone is a sinner might miss the conciliatory tone here. Jesus is actually validating the sensibilities of the religious elites while at the same time gently inviting them to leave their self-righteousness behind and embrace mercy instead of sacrifice.
I suspect that Francis finds himself in a similar position with the right-wing of his Catholic church. At this point, he’s seeking to be conciliatory and pastoral with them. But I won’t be surprised if they end up crucifying Francis like their spiritual forebears did to Jesus when he goes too far in his advocacy for the poor and marginalized. Pope Francis has spoken about the importance of creating a “culture of encounter” where Christians engage in honest but non-judgmental dialogue with their neighbors. He had no problem sitting down with Fidel Castro this weekend in Cuba to have a congenial conversation about their points of agreement. I’m sure he assessed in that conversation whether there were challenges he could invite Castro to consider, but he didn’t need to make sure Castro knew that he wasn’t on his team because his conversation with Fidel wasn’t a performance for the conservative Catholics who are watching his every move with baited breath.
The place where Pope Francis’ agenda separates from that of culture warrior Christians is that Pope Francis actually wants to share the gospel with the world. The pope may have a traditionalist view of sexuality and gender, but he recognizes that evangelists can’t be culture warriors. When your goal is to posture for other members of your tribe, then the most important way that you “practice your religion” is by publicly showing disapproval for the people your tribe defines itself against. When your goal is to share the gospel, then your first word to any stranger is “Welcome!” You lead with unconditional grace which is only authentically unconditional grace if it’s a gesture that “could be interpreted as an endorsement of their activities.”
So if the pope’s handlers fail, and he ends up seeking out Gene Robinson in the crowd of 15,000 to shake his hand and say something warm and gregarious, then the right-wing Catholics will certainly gnash their teeth with rage. Ross Douthat will probably write another column calling for schism. But they’re not the people the pope wants to share the gospel with. He wants to reach the millions of people who have been completely alienated from ever giving Jesus a chance by the last three decades of gospel-sabotaging culture war. And maybe a small gesture that gets “interpreted as an endorsement” and plastered on a bunch of websites and newspapers will be enough for thousands of ex-Catholics and maybe even some queer people to go back to church this Sunday with the hope that they might be welcome there.