It’s amazing how five simple words – “Who am I to judge?” – can change perceptions and open doors.
The words came from Pope Francis to reporters on his plane back to Rome following a weeklong trip to Brazil, and the topic was homosexuality.
The pope’s remarks were telling, both for what he said and what he didn’t say.
I was not on the plane, but my former colleague Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service was on board:
“A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will – well, who am I to judge him?” the pope said. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says one must not marginalize these persons, they must be integrated into society. The problem isn’t this (homosexual) orientation – we must be like brothers and sisters.”
Amid the media attention that inevitably followed, it’s important to note that although the pope was responding to a question about an alleged “gay lobby” in the Vatican, his comment was not specifically about gay priests.
Some media have portrayed the pope as saying he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation, which would seem to call into question the Vatican’s 2005 document that ruled out ordination for men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” Based on the pope’s actual words, I think that’s a stretch.
In fact, what the pope said – as he himself pointed out – is essentially affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that gay men and women “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
What the pope didn’t discuss with journalists was the catechism’s line that the homosexual inclination is itself “disordered.” That was the basis for the Vatican’s ban on gay priests. Francis didn’t disown that particular teaching, he just didn’t mention it.
It’s an important shift in emphasis. And Pope Francis is clearly trying to reach out to those who have been alienated by the church’s statements about homosexuality in recent years.
Although comparison between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict is not always fair, I think in this case it’s instructive. When asked about the church’s teaching on homosexuality in a book-length interview in 2010, Pope Benedict responded that gay men and women deserve respect, but added:
“This does not mean that homosexuality thereby becomes morally right. Rather, it remains contrary to the essence of what God originally willed.”
Pope Benedict went on to say that homosexuality among the clergy was “one of the miseries of the church” and that “homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation.”
“Who am I to judge?” sends a very different message.
UPDATE: Here’s a translation of the relevant portion of the Q and A aboard the papal flight. The English translation was done by Father Tom Rosica of Salt + Light TV, on the basis of an Italian transcript provided by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi:
The Question to Pope Francis from Ilse, a journalist on the Papal flight
Ilse: I would like to ask permission to pose a rather delicate question. Another image that went around the world is that of Monsignor Ricca and the news about his personal life. I would like to know, your Holiness, what will be done about this question. How should one deal with this question and how does your Holiness wish to deal with the whole question of the gay lobby?
The Pope’s Answer
Regarding the matter of Monsignor Ricca, I did what Canon Law required and did the required investigation. And from the investigation, we did not find anything corresponding to the accusations against him. We found none of that. That is the answer. But I would like to add one more thing to this: I see that so many times in the Church, apart from this case and also in this case, one looks for the “sins of youth,” for example, is it not thus?, And then these things are published. These things are not crimes. The crimes are something else: child abuse is a crime. But sins, if a person, or secular priest or a nun, has committed a sin and then that person experienced conversion, the Lord forgives and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives. When we go to confession and we truly say “I have sinned in this matter,” the Lord forgets and we do not have the right to not forget because we run the risk that the Lord will not forget our sins, eh? This is a danger. This is what is important: a theology of sin. So many times I think of St. Peter: he committed one of the worst sins denying Christ. And with this sin they made him Pope. We must think about fact often.
But returning to your question more concretely: in this case [Ricca] I did the required investigation and we found nothing. That is the first question. Then you spoke of the gay lobby. Agh… so much is written about the gay lobby. I have yet to find on a Vatican identity card the word gay. They say there are some gay people here. I think that when we encounter a gay person, we must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good. They are bad. If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point beautifully but says, wait a moment, how does it say, it says, these persons must never be marginalized and “they must be integrated into society.”
The problem is not that one has this tendency; no, we must be brothers, this is the first matter. There is another problem, another one: the problem is to form a lobby of those who have this tendency, a lobby of the greedy people, a lobby of politicians, a lobby of Masons, so many lobbies. This is the most serious problem for me. And thank you so much for doing this question. Thank you very much!