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The PR Pope
Don't underestimate what he said aboard a jet plane.

Positioning one's Christian faith
relative to homosexuality is a procedure measured in inches. Direct the congregation away from a passage in Leviticus? Two inches to the left. Slow down the conversation by referencing the New Testament's promise of forgiveness? A couple more. Reveal that you have gay friends? Now we're talking. There are many steps clergy can take to make gays feel more or less accepted in a church, and very few of them involve actual doctrine. Most entail nudging to the left and right in the enormous space between admitting openly gay members and refusing them, which is why Pope Francis' remarks on an airplane on Monday were so significant. Sure, a number of outlets blew them out of proportion. Yes, most took the few sentences in Italian out of their immediate context, and, yes, some sluggishly conservative remarks about the role of women in the church followed. But look again at what Francis said:

When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. [A reporter had asked about the 'gay lobby' rumored to be at work in the Vatican.] If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized.

This is textbook rhetoric for a Christian leader nudging to the left. Of the handful of Bible passages that refer to homosexuality, none are very positive, so leaders often make the discussion a question of priorities. When I interviewed Jeffrey Barrow -- bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the more liberal of the major sects of Lutheranism -- earlier this year, he said the Bible exhorts repeatedly that believers should give aid to the poor, and the book very, very rarely brings up whether they should be getting romantic with members of the same sex. Why, he and a handful of other Christian leaders asked, should we emphasize homosexuality, a topic that, statistically, the Bible places about as much emphasis on as bread crust?

More conservative leaders bristled when I asked if homosexuals attended churches under their purview, as if I had asked whether they would allow gang leaders or Bernie Madoff to become deacons. Some said gays could attend, but would in turn be attended to by clergy. These people, though not official members, would warrant a kind of outreach, and whether the pastor or bishop brought up God's universal love at this point in the interview was another important choice. Doing so, or prefacing answers to questions of sin by saying, "First, let me say all people are God's children," did a lot to make the religious entity sound inclusive to gays or set against them.

ELCA voted in 2009 to allow gay pastors, something that prompted sighs among the conservative Missouri and Wisconsin Evangelical synods, who had already seen ELCA as veering wildly away from scripture. (Even WELS, based in Brookfield, sees Missouri as overly compromising when it comes to following what's said in the Bible.) So Barrow was measured when he might have been more decisive. Few clergy were when I asked about their church body's stance on homosexuality, with most of the exceptions declaring opposition. "We've taken the position of holy scripture," Wille said immediately.

Rabbi Ronald Shapiro of the Reform synagogue Congregation Shalom stood out by leaning forward in his office and saying unequivocally that at Shalom, "People who are gay or lesbian are openly embraced and loved and cherished as much as people who are in a heterosexual relationship." This sounded sincere but not as incautious coming from Shapiro as the pope's offhanded statements made aboard a jetliner. They place the pontiff not far from Steven Teague, the rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Downtown Milwaukee, who said of homosexuality within the congregation, "It's not an issue. I would say God creates us ... We don't check how much money people have when they're joining here or who they're partnering with." To put it briefly, the Episcopal Church has kept much of Catholic ritual while becoming the sort of denomination that a Democrat living on the city's East Side would feel at ease with.

People reacted to the unscripted nature of the pope's remarks, and their subtlety is another reminder that clergy are among the best PR professionals on earth, even as media accounts are endlessly exploring the scandals and crises facing religion. Its institutions' ability to survive despite being looked to by billions for stability, sanity and hope in life (almost as much as people ask of public education!) rests on people like Teague, Wille and the new pope, who can invitingly mince the rhetoric of divisive questions.

Stories flowed out of Rome after Francis' election: Francis offering a chair and a snack to the bodyguard standing outside his door; Francis wandering into throngs wanting to get close to him on the street, to the terror of more bodyguards; Francis washing prisoners' feet. He's already been criticized for taking no steps to elevate women in the church -- not even of the sort he took for gays on Monday -- and not acting more demonstrably with respect to rooting out clergy abuse and making amends for past wrongs. On these thornier issues, he's been more of the bureaucrat. He's better aligning the Vatican with the demands of the United Nations, where the Committee on the Rights of the Child has excoriated the church for harboring and not prosecuting abusers.

Like pastors who say we should look less at homosexuality and more at the pains of poverty, Francis is picking and choosing the conversations to have, and when to have them, even when he makes it look like an accident.

(photo via Shutterstock)

Also see: "The New Faith"

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