Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
January 17, 2014
Right before Christmas, Pope Francis was unsurprisingly named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and very surprisingly was given the same honor by the Advocate, the oldest and largest gay magazine in the United States.
While Time’s award was for reasons far broader than the Advocate’s, both magazines explained that their fundamental rationale concerned Pope Francis’ comments in a July interview returning from Brazil: “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?”
This phrase, according to Time, defines “both the promise and the limits of Francis’ papacy.” The Advocate emblazoned the phrase on its cover, along with a photo of Francis with the words “No H8” (No Hate) in pretended face paint on his cheeks.
More than any other phrase in his Pontificate, “Who I am to judge?” has captured the attention of the secular media and others distant from the Church and come to define the new Pope. Whether people think his five words harbinger a change in Church teaching or just in tone, it’s clear that most are misinterpreting what Pope Francis was actually communicating.
His words came in response to a question concerning a Vatican monsignor whom he had appointed to a supervisory position at the Vatican bank but who press reports alleged had been kicked out of the Vatican’s Nunciature in Uruguay for flagrant homosexual behavior.
A journalist asked Pope Francis what he intended to do about the allegations. Pope Francis said he did the preliminary investigation that canon law requires, but then added that the Church shouldn’t succumb to the character assassinations popular in politics and society where people for “sins from youth” and publish them as a means to discredit people later in life. Francis said there’s a larger principle at work.
“If a person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious sister, commits a sin and then converts, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives. When we confess our sins and we truly say, ‘I have sinned in this,’ the Lord forgets, and so we have no right not to forget, because otherwise we would run the risk of the Lord not forgetting our sins.”
He implied that the priest in question had repented of his previous sinful behavior, confessed, received absolution and was now living a life consistent with the Gospel. To hold his past sins against him after God had forgiven them would be tantamount to opposing the Lord’s will.
Then, turning to the specific allegations, the Pope clarified, “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him? … The problem is not having this tendency, no, we must be brothers and sisters to one another. … The problem is in making a lobby of this tendency.”
The Pope said that if someone with same-sex attractions is seeking the Lord and morally good, he’s not going to hold those attractions against him and take him away from a position where he is helping the Church. The problem comes when people form a “gay lobby,” a group of people defined by a sinful subculture that flaunts the breaking of the commandments and priestly promises of celibate chastity and often seeks to protect and advance the careers of those in the corrupt clique.
So, contrary to the general impression, the Pope’s words, “Who am I to judge?,” don’t really concern his thoughts homosexual activity or gay priests in general, but rather a particular repentant priest who had turned his life around and was now once against seeking the Lord.
Why, then, have these five words captivated so many? I think there are two fundamental reasons that should give us all much to ponder.
The first is that many who are in any way distant from the Church think that Catholics are constantly judging rather than loving them. They’re judging others’ looks, choices, and pasts. They view the Church as a society of older brothers from the Parable of the Prodigal Son, constantly noticing invisible and morally indelible scarlet letters in others. They perceive from Catholics much more hatred for sin rather than love for sinners, often because they fail to grasp that the hatred for the sin is precisely because of the love for the sinner. They think the more Catholic a person is, the more he or she judges others, and they often have deep wounds from the individual Catholics in their family and parishes who have treated on the basis of their sin rather than their divine filiation .
For them, Pope Francis’ words were, indeed, revolutionary, that a Pope looks on them first and fundamentally not with a wagging finger but with a heart full of divine love. That’s the way they should see every Catholic looking at them. The repair of the false image of the Church is not just Pope Francis’ responsibility, but our common task.
The second reason his words have fascinated so many is, I’d propose, because, deep-down within, many fear judgment, not so much by others but by God. God’s voice functioning within the conscience cannot be totally extinguished, and no amount of polls or politically correct slogans can convince people that they really are better off rejecting, rather than following, the moral teachings enunciated by the Church. To a world that often tries to tune out God’s gentle whispers in conscience but will never be at peace about it, Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy rather than judgment gives them hope that they may in fact find mercy rather than judgment on the last day. The secular world’s response to Pope Francis’ words, whether it admits it or not, shows how much it’s hungering for mercy.
Pope Francis is explicitly speaking to that need and giving all Catholics a much needed example to follow.