Pope Francis asked a stunning question: "Who am I to judge?" This was in response to inquiries about whether or not there are gay priests in the Vatican -- the now-renowned "gay lobby."
In a 90-minute interview returning from his travels in Brazil, an affable, relaxed Pope Francis covered a range of topics, but the "who am I to judge?" response made the world do a double take.
"Who am I to judge?"
Well, the pope! You are the pope who inherited two millennia of, well, pontificating about what's right and what's wrong, what's moral and what's immoral.
I am sure the Vatican leaders are wringing their collective hands over a pope who may be viewed as a security and PR nightmare. He may seem out of their control, dispensing mercy and off-the-cuff pastoral kindness that blurs the lines of official church policy and pronouncements. We could almost feel the winds of Vatican II blowing.
My hope is that this is not just the kind of rock-star popularity that masked the sometimes-kind conservatism of John Paul II. He gave "warm fuzzies" to big crowds but became increasingly dogmatic as a corrupt system of financial and sexual exploitation lurked beneath the surface.
Pope Francis' step toward humility was stunning, but few are naïve enough to think that everything has changed. Gay priests must still be celibate, and Pope Francis declared that "the door is closed" on the ordination of women. But what the pope did in that interview was to begin to live up to the Catholic Church's own teachings about humankind.
Honestly, if all Christian denominations and traditions lived up to their own teachings about humanity, there would be a great revolution of respect. But that respect must include women as full human beings, worthy of greatness -- worthy of ordination -- and it must include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people.
I sincerely hope this pope really does want to shake up things. Celibacy should be optional. Catholic women need the church to move into the 20th, not to mention the 21st, century and recognize their full eligibility for the priesthood. Sexual assaults on children must be eliminated. Decisions about contraception, reproductive health and choice should be in the hands of women, not by unaffected men who like to dictate policy. The use of condoms to save lives through prevention of HIV/AIDS must be commonplace. A revolution of respect can happen!
Virtually every faith tradition has a core belief that human beings have inherent worth as creations of God. The inherent worth of each human being means that Christians should be aghast at the brutal murders of gay men in Russia, Cameroon, Yemen and even in the United States.
In South Africa, where so-called "corrective rape" is used mostly against lesbians but also against transgender people and gay men, the brutality is shocking and too often endorsed by family members. Duduzile Zozo was raped with a toilette brush and left to die in early July. Bishop Tutu presided at her memorial service and famously said that he "would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven."
Most anti-LGBTQ rapes, beatings, tortures and murders happen with little comment because it is too dangerous to report the assault or murder of a gay friend or family member for fear of police reprisal. Even with high publicity, the Cameroon police do not seem to be pursuing the person(s) who murdered gay rights advocate Eric Lembembe. Instead, Cameroon police arrested three organizers who have been critiquing the lack of action by Cameroon officials!
Where are the faith voices? Pope Francis, we urge you not to be silent! Use your moral weight to stop vicious attacks and cruel persecution. Promote a campaign for tolerance. We do not have to punish people for being different!
Why are Christians silent when Eric Lemembe is tortured with a hot iron in his own home? Why are Christians silent when lesbians are raped -- even raped to death? Why are Christians silent as Russia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and so many other countries pass laws that make talking about the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people punishable by prison or fine?
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe recently condemned LGBTQ people and promised to cut off our heads. Pronouncements like these are de facto endorsements of street violence, mob attacks, family rejection and official persecution against anyone who is perceived to be LGBTQ -- as well as against their families. Mugabe is a Catholic who should hear from his new pope that violent homophobia is unacceptable for Catholic leaders.
Although the pope did not suddenly change the church's view that LGBTQ people should remain celibate, whether as priests or as lay people, he did tell Christians around the world that it's time to live up to the highest values of the faith rather than descend to base disrespect for human beings.
Pope Francis modeled a more tolerant approach to LGBTQ people. He is the first pope to use the word "gay." Tolerance is a humble platform from which people across the world can be speaking out for mutual respect. It is not a perfect platform, but it appears that it might suit a pope who doesn't think of himself as infallible but as a human being who respects God's good diversity. How refreshing!
As the head of Metropolitan Community Churches, which has ministries in 40 countries, I know that it is time that Christians step up and strive to fulfill the basic teachings of Jesus: Feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit prisoners -- and, like the pope, judge not.