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Speaking with reporters on board his flight returning from Brazil to Rome, Pope Francis made the following comment, “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?”
Who is he to judge? He’s the pope. Isn’t that part of his job?! He is the leader of a millennia old institution – one steeped in legal tradition and religious norms. How could he not judge? If not him, then who?
Has Pope Francis become some kind of relativist? A post-modern paralytic unable to take a stand when asked what many would deem to be a straightforward question, and one with what many more would assume is an equally straightforward answer? Hardly.
What Pope Francis did in answering as he did, was to distinguish between making a judgment and being judgmental.
Far from being unable or unwilling to make a judgment, Pope Francis, in answering the reporter’s question as he did, made any number of judgments. And while they depart from, or even contradict the teaching of his predecessor on gay priests, for example, the judgments Pope Francis made are actually not terribly surprising — at least not so surprising when one views them in the context of his past words and deeds.
This is the pope who spoke of the spiritual dignity of atheist reporters covering him in Rome, washed and kissed the feet of HIV/AIDS patients and prisoners, and did these things in the name of his Catholic faith. In fact, the pope’s response on the plane continues his trademark combination of deep humility, concern for marginalized and vulnerable populations, and total commitment to the traditions of his church.
Holding that particular “trinity” together is no small feat, especially in today’s world, where those who are willing to make judgments often do so rather judgmentally, and those who resist harsh judgmentalism, often find it difficult to make any judgments at all. The ability to exercise judgment without becoming judgmental is fast becoming something of this pope’s trademark, so it should really come as no great surprise that he answered as he did.
Pope Francis did more than answer a question though. He articulated an ethic of judging, one which recognizes that while making judgments is a necessary part of life – in this case, determining who is acting in good will, what it means to seek the Lord, and the insistence that some people forego sexual expression — not all judgment-making is within human purview, even of the human in question is the pope.
To be clear, Pope Francis questioned neither his own authority as pope, nor church teaching on homosexual sex. That, for him at least, would be tantamount to suspending all capacity for judgment. Instead, he simply accepted the fact that when one seeks God, is judged to be doing so in good will, and lives according to the church’s rules, that person should be above human reproach.
Imagine that, a stalwart institutional leader who recognizes that while the institution he leads is sacred – ordained by God, for those who follow the faith – there are times when all of us must be willing to say “who am I to judge?” Some things, the pope’s comments suggest, simply belong to God.
Image courtesy of Semilla Luz.