Pope Francis Leads From Behind

President Obama was a liar about gay marriage. He initially supported it, and then said he didn’t, but said he was “evolving” on it. That was a transparent ruse, and a cynical one, but not in a normal cynical way. Yes, it was partly just to get elected. But while Obama wasn’t a leader on gay rights, he was a promoter of them. He normalized the tone in which we talked about gay rights, made it clear that there wasn’t anything weird or unhealthy about them- that it was frankly strange to be opposed- and helped to mainstream activism. He worked to overturn DOMA and DADT, and when he officially endorsed gay marriage, after Joe Biden delightfully jumped forward with it, it seemed perfectly normal. When it became the law of the land, it was met by most people with either joy or a shrug. There are some rearguard monsters who will fight against it, but I feel like most people were embarrassed that they once thought it maybe it shouldn’t be legal. That’s what the Obama “leading from behind” mentality was. Let the activists do the work and lead, and help create an atmosphere for their success. The activists deserve to be lauded throughout history for what they accomplished, but the President also deserves some credit for his ability to make the thought of gay marriage normal.

Pope Francis is not President Obama (although they are both invited to my place for dinner at any time). I don’t know if he actually approves of gay marriage, or is wants to see it happen, or is working for it, in a way that I always knew Obama did. Still, though, he is changing the tone of the Church, and in many ways that is far braver and bolder. He may not be going far enough for many activists, but I think he is going as far as a Pope can. He may be, like Obama, leading from behind, but the trail is considerably longer.

In his Apostolic Exhortation released today (titled Joy of Love), he called on priests and parishes to be more welcome and accepting of the divorced, the sinfully cohabitating, and of homosexuals. He called on them not to be shunned, and to be welcomed into the church. He wants to make it easier for people to remarry.

What he did not do was make any new rules or regulations, nor did he come close to endorsing gay marriage. That will make some activists and reformers upset. I don’t think anyone expected him to come out and endorse gay marriage (though would you really be surprised), but I think they were hoping for stronger language that might start forging a path.

This was unrealistic, even if it would have been welcome. What Francis is doing is changing the tenor of the Church, or at least trying to. He’s basically saying that it is unholy nonsense to be so hung up on who is doing who, and when. That while the Bible is pretty sex-obsessed, that’s kind of weird, right? And that the other stuff in it- the faith and love and charity- is way more important.

This is, in its own way, more important than Doctrinal changes. Those are weirdly easier to ignore. The Church is huge and sprawling, and the people in it pick and choose what rules they want to follow. I know there were a few big ones I ignored when I was a practicing Catholic. What is harder to ignore is the strange pull of morality, which is different than rules. It’s a felt reality, something internal. It’s a huge part of the mystery of faith. It’s a warm light inside.

Sometimes that light can be a raging fire. One only has to look at the twisted Goya faces of the religious right today, hammering sweatily about why gays are destroying society. In Catholic countries around the world (less so here, unless you count the horrid Bill Donahue) you see some of that hatred toward homosexuals, and other “sexual deviants” (i.e. anyone who doesn’t have power but still likes sex).

Pope Francis wants to calm that down. He wants to focus that energy into love, and is doing so by example and by gentle, but still fierce, exhoratations. Maybe he doesn’t think that gay marriage is right. He may think it is a sin. He may want full acceptance for everyone, but realize changing things in the Church is less about a a term and more of a century-long task. But what he is doing is important. He is turning the Church- the oldest and most leather-bound insititution in the world- inside out. He’s trying to replace the living statues that creak around shadowy corners with human beings, living in the light. He wants to make the Church about love, and not about maintaining power.

He won’t succeed, at least not fully. He probably can’t succeed. After him, it may collapse back into itself, like Usher by Escher, a twisted and looping warren of conspiracies, self-preservation, and derelict neglect. It’s existed for 2000 years, after all, not so much on the words of Christ, but in the image of Paul, that lashing bureaucrat with the wild-eyed rat-sniffing self-righteousness of any new convert. But Pope Francis is creating an atmosphere where change has a chance to succeed, where light has a chance to break through, and where the only thing that is gospel are the Gospels.

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