who am I to judge them?

On the plane home from Brazil, Pope Francis surprised journalists with an 81 minute free-for-all question and answer period. John L. Allen Jr, as always, did a bang up job of reporting on the papal trip for the National Catholic Reporter including an article on the mid-air discussions. While Francis covered many topics, the one that made head-lines around the world was the following,

When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.”

The comment elicited a mixed response. Many rejoiced in what appeared to be a major change in tone, leaning towards more compassion and less legalism. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, meanwhile, was quick to insist that the Pope was not changing the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. Jamie Manson wrote a challenging piece for NCR questioning whether it is too soon to rejoice since real change is yet to come with regards to same sex marriage and the ordination of women. (During the interviews Francis reaffirmed the definitive pronouncement made by John Paul II for a male-only priesthood.)

I think the key words here, and the words that resonated with so many, are who am I to judge them?

Pope Francis embraces the liberal emphasis on social justice. His life-style reflects gospel simplicity. His words and actions are those of a compassionate pastor. But, we cannot be naïve. He is not liberal in doctrine, and we cannot expect him to be. Remember who appointed the current roster of red hats at the Vatican.

“Who am I to judge them” doesn’t mean that we put all judging aside. Sometimes we hide behind a veil of tolerance to avoid making a tough judgment call. Tolerance, misused, can easily become apathy.

A well-known mantra for discerning right and just action is SEE, JUDGE, ACT. Judging requires careful discernment that goes deeper than either black and white legalisms or simple gut reactions. Truth requires a moral foundation but how we view and interpret that moral foundation will greatly affect our actions.

Pope Francis may not be over-turning any doctrines or disciplines in the Church but he is showing us how to be open to the gray areas where a large portion of truth resides. Beyond the rules and pronouncements are flesh and blood humans and our lives are seldom text-book. Jesus had few kind words for the Pharisees that spent their days wagging their fingers at rule breakers. He knew the messiness of life and showed us how the best judgments come from the heart; the source of compassion and mercy.
Sure, I wish that Pope Francis could wake up tomorrow and tear down the doctrinal walls of sexual morality that have kept too many good women and men on the margins of both church and society. In the meantime, perhaps the simple words who am I to judge will challenge those who are more inclined to make black and white judgment calls against their sisters and brothers.

I haven’t given up hope that one day the powers that be will catch up with the wisdom in the pews; a wisdom that increasingly sees no issue with welcoming LGBT persons into our communities and giving the community’s blessing on monogamous, committed relationships.