When asked about the status of gay priests, Pope Francis surprised reporters. “Who am I to judge?” Some see his reply as a sign of acceptance – others, acquiescence. There’s another possibility, however. It might be that the church has bigger fish to fry.
Pope Francis enjoyed a fabulous 2013. According to CNN, nearly three in four Americans view Francis favorably. Part of the Pope’s popularity stems from eschewing the trappings of the papacy in favor of simpler vestments and a cheaper car. He’s also mentioned working as a bar bouncer and a janitor before becoming a priest.
But the bigger news is the breadth of the Pope’s popularity. According to one study, Pope Francis was the most talked about person on the Internet in 2013. He was named person of the year by both Time magazine and The Advocate, a gay and lesbian publication that highlighted remarks made by the Pope in July when asked about gay priests. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
The gay community interpreted this as an affirmation of homosexuality. Traditionalists fear the Pope is acquiescing to culture. There’s a third possibility, however. With regard to the government of the church, Pope John XXIII wrote: “See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.” Francis is a fan of John XXIII. It seems that Pope Francis is turning a blind eye to the gay issue. Why? The church has bigger fish to fry.
There are occasions when turning a blind eye is a wise move. Solomon was a very wise man. He wrote how it is the “glory” of an individual “to overlook a transgression” (Prov.19:11). It’s a glory because this is what God does on occasion.
When the Apostle Paul preached to the elites on Mars Hill, he started by affirming how they were “very religious in all respects” (Acts 17:22). He noted their worship of an “unknown” God but said God was now knowable. God hadn’t been hiding. He had allowed for “allotted periods” of time for nations to “seek God, that they might feel after him and find him.” During this time, God “overlooked” ignorance (17:30).
Overlooking does not mean indulging, accepting, or ignoring sin. It means God on occasion takes no notice of our ignorance, looking the other way and letting it be. He has bigger fish to fry. This is confirmed by Paul’s words in Acts 14:16. “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.” God “overlooked” ignorance in the sense that he allowed the nations to wander, all in the hope that they’d come to their senses. He did not issue immediate judgments.
This might be why the Pope is not issuing immediate judgments. “Many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time,” he recently noted. “I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time for discernment.” James Davison Hunter, a cultural analyst, would likely agree. “For all the talk of world-changing and all of the good intentions that motivate it,” Hunter writes, “the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.”1 A privatized gospel has relegated the church to the sidelines. Anxious to get back in the game, many faith traditions have turned to a politicized gospel. This has led to the church often being complicit in politicizing the gay issue. It’s a stunning lack of discernment.
Politicizing any issue makes civil discussion highly unlikely. This might be why the Pope is mostly mum on the volatile issue of gay priests. Francis feels this is the time for discernment and zipping the lip in public seems to be the best way to demonstrate discernment. It’s strikingly similar to what James Hunter encourages the faith community to do, given its shrill tone in recent decades. “It may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization.” The church would be silent for a period of time “to learn how to engage the world in public differently and better.”
In asking, “Who am I to judge?” the Pope is not saying he’s opposed to making any judgments. This is the time for discernment, and discerning is synonymous with judging. “Judgment begins with the household of God” (I Pet.4:17). The Pope might simply be saying the church ought to first get its house in order. Between clergy scandals and collapsing confidence among Christians in defining marriage as male-female, we’re looking at a new age of ignorance in the church. If God can overlook ignorance in the wider world, so can the church for the time being. It has bigger fish to fry right at home.
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1 James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Later Modern World (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 274.