David Harsanyi

Being neither a Catholic nor a religious scholar, I'm in no position to offer opinions on the Roman Catholic Church or its doctrine. Yet it seems to me that conservatives might learn a thing or two from Pope Francis when it comes to messaging and tone.

The pope, it is widely reported, has "recast the Catholic Church's image" by focusing on its "inviting, merciful aspects" -- even "shocking," as The Washington Post put it -- to a planeload of reporters in an impromptu interview last week. Regarding homosexuality, he asserted, "Who am I to judge?"

Well, OK, that's not exactly what he said. The pope, answering a question about celibate gay priests, noted, "If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them?" If -- which is a far cry from much of the public perception about the incident.

But perception matters. Most members of the press thought this moment quite remarkable, though really, it shouldn't strike anyone with even the slightest curiosity as exceptional. The pope's "who am I to judge" formulation is about as old as his institution itself. The church's catechism says gays "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided." This has been standard treatment for nearly everyone -- in theory, if not always in practice -- since the Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged incident.

What the pope did not do, as far as I can tell, was announce his support for gay marriage. Nor did he claim that homosexual activity is no longer a sin. He simply articulated one of the more compelling messages of his church's teachings.

In this way, the incident is reminiscent of how much of the press treats classical liberal ideas -- with either willful ignorance or a misleading grasp of the basics but almost always making sure to focus on the most extreme and cartoonish aspects of ideology. Guess what. Most of us haven't read an Ayn Rand book since we were in our teens, and many of us weren't too crazy about them when we did.

David Harsanyi

David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist and the author of "The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy." Follow him on Twitter @davidharsanyi.