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From Pope Francis, a message on judgment

Earlier this summer, Pope Francis jarred the Roman Catholic church with five simple words in response to a question about gay priests: “Who am I to judge?” Some in the faith community have since tried to explain away the remark by saying it was narrowly tailored to the issue of the priesthood. This week, the pope offered a startling clarification.

In an interview published Thursday by 16 Jesuit journals around the world, Francis said that the church had placed too much emphasis on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and contraception. The Pope went so far as to say the church had grown “obsessed” over those issues, placing more emphasis on them than serving the marginalized of the world.

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” he said.

The words seemed to mark a critical shift for the Catholic church, but they also offered a compelling message for people of all faiths who are sorting through social and political debate on issues like gay marriage. That’s a topic particularly potent in the United States right now, and on homosexuality, Francis was pointed: “Tell me, when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.”

In his comments, Francis acknowledged the obvious challenge for the faithful with gay rights. For many, their Bibles tell them homosexuality is a sin, although some Biblical scholars suggest that passages typically cited as condemning homosexuality might not be specifically be referring to gays. But for those for whom there is no ambiguity on homosexuality or other moral issues, the pope had a plea. “We have to find a new balance,” the pontiff said, because there is a danger in placing such vigorous emphasis on a “disjointed multitude of doctrines.”

There are countless examples of that vigor. In the past decade, the church has endorsed a denial of communion to political candidates who support abortion. Last year, dozens of Catholic institutions went to court and publicly denounced federal requirements that their insurance policies provide employees coverage for contraception.

Also, U.S. bishops and priests have joined some other denominations in actively campaigning against gay rights. In North Carolina last year, bishops distributed letters to parishioners urging their support of a discriminatory constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage. Also in 2012, St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in Charlotte was rocked when a popular music director lost his job after marrying his longtime partner in New York.

In 2009, two N.C. bishops even spoke out against anti-bullying school legislation in 2009, saying it was a precursor for same sex marriage.

“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things,” Pope Francis said.

The danger of such insistent censure – for the Catholic church, at least – is that it won’t be what Francis calls “a home for all.” But the Pope also offers a powerful reminder for the rest of us. “Who am I to judge?” he asked back in August. Now, he’s given an answer worth contemplating.

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