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On Monday, on a flight from Rio de Janeiro back to Rome, Pope Francis talked with reporters for over an hour. At one point, he was asked about the “gay lobby” in the Vatican and opened his response by saying, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?”

This is a significant departure from recent pontiffs.

To be clear, Pope Francis did refer to the Catholic Church’s universal catechism, which says that homosexuality as an orientation is not sinful, but that acting on such impulses is a sin. (Note: It also says homosexuals should not be marginalized.)

Grace

The real difference between Pope Francis’ take on homosexuality and the perspective of his most recent forebearers is, as far as I can tell, not their interpretation of scripture or personal theology, but, rather, the point of emphasis. Pope Francis seems to emphasize the grace, while his predecessors seemed to emphasize the sin.

Whatever your view on homosexuality, this is a beautiful reminder to show grace and mercy. Certainly, God calls us to be discerning, but an even greater call than that — in fact, the “greatest commandment” — is to show love. Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman. Pope Francis has not condemned the gay community. Neither should we. This does not mean, if we see sin, we should condone it — Jesus also said, “Go now and leave your life of sin,” — but it does mean we cannot cast stones. Our first duty is to love.

Humility

I am not Catholic, nor do I have any great knowledge of the structure or traditions of the Catholic Church. However, it seems to me that Pope Francis’ remarks signify something deeper than his position on homosexuality.

As I understand it, Catholics view the Pope as infallible. This does not mean they believe the Pope is sinless. It does not mean that all Popes must agree, or even that they will always be good examples. What it means, I think, is that the Pope and Catholic bishops can make definitive statements on issues of faith and morality. (Luke 10:16 says, “He who listens to you listens to me.”)

The First Vatican Council said:

…the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of the pastor and teacher of all Christians by his supreme apostolic authority… through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals

And the Second Vatican Council adds:

…the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charisma of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith.

I don’t pretend to know what all of this means, but I take it that the Pope has a lot of power. He seems to be the Christian of highest earthly authority, with the ability to make declarations, presumably, as a mouthpiece for the Holy Spirit.

While Protestants like myself don’t see the Pope the way our Catholic brothers and sisters do, we should still pay attention to him. With Francis’ remarks on homosexuality, he demonstrates the utmost humility. He could have made a much different statement, one more hostile or prideful, but Francis practiced the opposite of hypocrisy. Despite holding the post at the pinnacle of Catholicism, he made himself low, admitting that even he, the most powerful Christian in the world, cannot condemn another person’s soul.

In the months of his tenure, Pope Francis has shown himself to be a loving man with a servant’s heart. His most recent soundbyte shows grace and humility on an issue the Church often fumbles over. All Christians, Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics, might take dancing lessons from the meek and graceful Pope Francis, as long as his own choreographer is Christ.

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