One key to understanding Pope Francis? His approach to judgment.

Pope Francis speaks to the media aboard the papal flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome in 2013. When the pope told reporters, "Who am I to judge" a homosexual person, he was emphasizing a part of Catholic teaching often overlooked by the media and misunderstood by many people. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

For good or ill, a single sound bite sometimes sums up the essence of an entire papacy.

Take Pope Leo X. A scion of the storied Medici family and a patron of the arts, Leo had a penchant for luxury. Upon his election, he purportedly uttered, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” And he did enjoy it, draining the Vatican treasury to fund lavish renovations and massive art projects, including the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica. (To bring in more revenue, he expanded the sale of indulgences, leading to the Protestant Reformation. Oops.)

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There are plenty of more recent, if less dramatic, examples of sound bites cutting through the noise to get at the heart of a papacy.

When asked why he was convening the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII is reported to have said, “I want to throw open the windows of the church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” He was responsible for some of the biggest changes in church history, which elevated the role of the laity and prodded church leaders toward transparency.

Then, with the world on the brink of nuclear annihilation in the 1960s, Pope Paul VI proclaimed to the United Nations, “Never again war, never again war!” John Paul II, sensing the anxiety gripping the planet as the Cold War continued, began his papacy with, “Be not afraid!” Sensing a change to the challenges facing the church by the mid 2000s, Pope Benedict XVI warned in a speech delivered just before his election, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism.”

For good or ill, a single sound bite sometimes sums up the essence of an entire papacy.

Those sound bites help us understand the priorities and personalities of the popes, and while it’s perhaps too early to speculate which sound bite will ultimately define Pope Francis, it’s hard to imagine anything coming close to a question he asked in 2013: “Who am I to judge?”

The context of that remark, which was seemingly reported by every Catholic and secular news outlet, is important.

It came just four months after his election, when the world was still not quite sure what to make of the first pope to hail from the Americas. Francis was on a plane, heading back to Rome from World Youth Day in Rio. At the start of the trip, he told journalists that he does not give many interviews because he is uncomfortable trying to communicate in that fashion. But on the flight home, he agreed to hold a press conference, the start of a tradition that would create some of the biggest and boldest headlines during his papacy.

An Italian journalist asked him a question about gay priests working in the Vatican, specifically wondering if there is a “gay lobby” with undue influence in the church. Francis said there was no evidence of a gay lobby, and he then pivoted to talk about gay people more generally.

“If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, well who am I to judge them?” the pope asked.

It was a simple question that nonetheless would go on to define the papacy of a pastor whom the world was just getting to know.

The pope’s question held obvious appeal for L.G.B.T. Catholics and their families. For one thing, Francis actually used the word gay—a first for a pope. (Many Catholic leaders employ the more clinical sounding phrase “same-sex attraction” when talking about gays and lesbians, often over the objection of the people they are talking about.) It also signaled an openness from the highest echelons of the church toward accompanying gays and lesbians on their faith journeys, something relatively novel in recent church history.

In the weeks and months that followed, some Catholic pundits, concerned that the church’s emphasis on the sinfulness of homosexual sex was being lost amid the more welcoming tone of the pope, tried to walk back the comment. They pointed out that Pope Francis is against same-sex marriage, that he is troubled by what he calls “gender ideology,” which posits that gender is a social construct, and that he has not changed any church teaching on sexual morality. That is all true.

But when Pope Francis had the opportunity in 2016 to address the comment himself, he repeated his assertion that gays and lesbians should not be marginalized in the church.

“On that occasion I said this: If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person?” Francis told the Italian journalist Andrea Tornelli in a book length interview called The Name of God is Mercy. “I was paraphrasing by heart the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it says that these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized.”

“I am glad that we are talking about ‘homosexual people’ because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity,” he continues. “And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love.”

As to how gay and lesbian Catholics should practice the faith? No different from anyone else, the pope suggested.

“I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together,” he said. “You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it.”

Of course, the pope’s comments and his desire to rid the church of excessive judgment extend far beyond his thoughts about the L.G.B.T. community. In fact, resisting judgmentalism pops up again and again in the pope’s writings, homilies, and addresses.

In “Evangelii Gaudium,” or “The Joy of the Gospel,” which Pope Francis published during the first year of his pontificate and which serves as the blueprint of his papacy, he wrote what has become another of his famous lines. He said that he prefers a church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” One of the symptoms of the church being closed in on itself, he continued, is that it makes Christians fixate on “rules which make us harsh judges.”

Pope Francis: A church closed in on itself makes Christians fixate on “rules which make us harsh judges.”

A little later on in the document, Francis writes about the traits for effective evangelization, which he said includes “certain attitudes which foster openness to the message: approachability, readiness for dialogue, patience, a warmth and welcome which is non-judgmental” (emphasis added).

Why the focus on judgment? Sure, in the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly warns his followers against judging others. So Pope Francis is certainly drawing on good source material. But he’s actually trying to make a broader point.

He may go down in history as the “Who am I to judge?” pope, but the question he asks points to a Christian virtue much more important to Francis—mercy. To put it succinctly, Pope Francis believes that the world has forgotten what it means to be merciful and that being overly judgmental prevents us from showing mercy to others.

He laid out this argument in a homily delivered at his residence in 2014, as reported by L’Osservatore Romano. He said that being merciful includes seeking forgiveness for one’s own sins—rather than condemning the shortcomings of others. “Who am I to judge this? Who am I to gossip about this? Who I am, who have done the same things, or worse?” he asked.

By adopting an attitude free of judging others, the pope argues, the world will be a more peaceful place.

“If all of us, all peoples, all families, all quarters had this attitude, how much peace there would be in the world, how much peace there would be in our hearts, for mercy brings us peace!” he said. “Let us always remember: Who am I to judge?”

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Larry Mulligan
7 months 3 weeks ago

"Who am I to judge" those making accusations against Bishop Barros?

Lonnie Barone
7 months 3 weeks ago

The caution not to judge, as it came from Jesus, is ominous and strong. Judge not, lest you be judged. It is reminiscent of our plea in the Lord's Own Prayer that God forgive us as we forgive others. Pope Francis links this command, which he obviously takes as seriously as Jesus does, with the pope's constant exhortation that accompany one another, stay with, listen, walk along.

Judging precludes accompaniment. Judging pushes the other away, separates us from them, places conditions on our willingness to accompany them. We focus on their sin rather than our own, and so we become susceptible to the greatest deadly sin, pride.

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. If I start there, the rest will surely follow.

Roberta Crispino
7 months 3 weeks ago

As a transgender Catholic who has only recently transitioned over the past two years, I have been advised and encouraged by members of the LGBT community and others to seek out denominations that are more open and accepting. I steadfastly refuse to leave the Church. It has not been easy. In the industrial New England area where I live, change comes slowly. But it has worked in my favor. I measure my thoughts, words, and actions. I was raised by my parents and grandmother to adore Jesus, show devotion to the Blessed Mother, recently St. Teresa of Avila's 'Prayer of Patience' has given me support, and Fr. James Martin, and especially Pope Francis. I look back and thank God. I look ahead and trust God. I look around and serve God and, . . . I look within and find God. I accept myself and everyone I meet, especially the least of those sisters and brothers. All we need is love. Blessed be God forever. Thank you, Roberta.

Dionys Murphy
7 months 3 weeks ago

Thank you for staying with the Church to seek change from within and the love of Christ who created you in Their image.

Nora Bolcon
7 months 3 weeks ago

Who am I to judge? Why do you judge women are not worthy of priesthood then? Until this Pope stops judging women as less than men and proves It by ordaining women to priesthood and making them bishops too all i will remember him as is the pope who talked love but acted towards me and all his sisters with condemnation and injustice.

Mike Theman
7 months 3 weeks ago

The Church, the Pope, and God recognize that women are different from men, neither sex being superior to the other.
Eve's envy of power was the first sin. Ironically, her power over Adam is what led to the fall of man (men). Some things never change.

Nora Bolcon
7 months 3 weeks ago

And your statement is pure misogyny. Everyone is different from everyone else. Black men are different from white men too but if you disallowed black priests, then you would be a racist and hater of black people. The same goes for women, yes they are different, but not by anything that causes them to be unable to function equally as men for priesthood. There are even recent studies on gender that prove men act and think more differently in some groups than do different genders.

The Gospels condemn treating anyone differently than you wish to be treated. This means if you don't treat all people, male and female included, the same, then you are sinning against them. This per Jesus Christ's great commandment that Jesus told all believers they must obey above all other rules along with loving God with all of their heart, soul, mind or strength.

Sexism like racism is hate. All hate is sin. It is not jealousy or envy to demand to be treated as an equal human being. This church TREATS women as less by stripping them of same sacraments which Jesus never would have supported nor did he support in any gospel.

You are the one backing satan because Misogyny, The Hater Of Women, is a demon and you have chosen to put aside the Gospels to worship him.

Eve did not overpower Adam into eating the fruit. Genesis is clear that he was present for the conversation between Eve and Satan. He just like Eve was tempted to disbelieve God spoke the truth. Every individual is responsible for their own choices in faith. Eve and Adam caused their own downfalls as individuals who both equally chose to lack faith in God's word.

When Adam stops blaming Eve for his own faults, perhaps then this church will find authentic justice and the authentic peace and unity which cannot arrive without that justice first being present.

Mike Theman
7 months 3 weeks ago

Jesus was Jewish, even until his death. There were no female Rabbis in his time, and I can't recall anything in the Gospels that expressed his discontent about that.

Women are different from men in countless ways, and this extends across all cultures and races. Differences between the races and nationalities are primarily cultural, albeit one might argue that the genetic differences are one of the reasons that we have nation states.

Treating people with equal respect is different from treating them as the same. Indeed, to dismiss our differences as men and women and treat them as identical to one another is disrespectful to women and the special gifts that they, not men, bring to the world.

You, like Eve, have been tempted by the Devil, looking beyond the blessings that God gave to you and focusing, instead, on what others have that you do not. Frankly, I don't know what you think is so great about being a priest that you come here to rant every day about women not being priests. In my experience, the nuns did a lot more to improve lives than any priest ever did. Such a shame that that army of strong women educators and keepers of the Church has essentially been destroyed by women like you, the modern-day Eves. I'm sorry that you cannot accept the blessings that God gave to you that are so powerful in the world and over men.

Luis Gutierrez
7 months 3 weeks ago

Nora, I don't think Pope Francis is judging that "women are not worthy of priesthood." I think the problem is that he is still trapped in patriarchal gender ideology, i.e., the patriarchal gender "binary" that effectively reduces the human person to sexual biology. Why should the church perpetuate the conflation of patriarchal gender ideology and the truth revealed in Christ Jesus is beyond me, but this is where we are, and it may take centuries to clarify this issue, so we better don't get too worked up about it, and we should not judge those who want to remain in the patriarchal tradition. Prayers!

Kester Ratcliff
7 months 3 weeks ago

It's true, most of the advice in scripture is not to judge our brothers and sisters, but, there is also advice to clearly warn grave sinners.

I don't believe 'grave' means petty impurities -if it does, I'm lost for sure, but dishonest malicious actions -such as, for example, Mother Agnes and Ignatius Joseph III Yonan patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church doing international propaganda for the criminal regime and abetting mass atrocity crimes by the regime, should be clearly judged and cut off, declared anathema. It would be better to excommunicate, depose and then leave those positions vacant than to let those positions continue to be misused for evil.

Unless I am totally mistaken about God, I do not think God will mind so much in the end the people, like me, who loved the 'wrong' people or wandered seeking human intimacy in imperfect ways, but will be angry like a fiercely protective parent against those who dishonestly and maliciously killed, maimed, raped and tortured innocent people.

What the bible says about sin is not so much individual impurities but more about seriously harming other people. For example, Isaiah 58.

Mike Theman
7 months 3 weeks ago

Rather than judgment, I think the quote exemplifies this Pope's ignorance about the importance of carefully choosing of his words in a society in turmoil. That was the first of many ambiguous comments by this Pope.

For those without an agenda, when the Pope said "gay," what he meant was people with same-sex attraction, not people who embrace that attraction and deem sodomy to be sinless. "The Pope who never got the memo."

Dionys Murphy
7 months 3 weeks ago

"this Pope's ignorance" "For those without an agenda" - Your agenda is plain, given your assertion that you know what the Pope meant in his statement. He is not an ignorant man. He was clear about what he said and what he meant, including who he meant. If you choose to misinterpret it to forward your own agenda, then you likely have some self-exploration just waiting on the back burner.

Mike Theman
7 months 3 weeks ago

You do know that the Pope was only partially quoted in this article. Here's a sentence from the Pope that was eliminated regarding his "who am i to judge" quote:
"I was paraphrasing by heart the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it says that these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized." From the Catechism, "these people" refers to people with homosexual "tendencies" and "inclinations." But, of course, a gay person is not just one with a homosexual tendency or inclination, it a person who has accepted and adopted homosexual sexual relations as part of his/her identity. It is that last point on which the Pope is ignorant. I personally think that to avoid such confusion, the Catechism should just refer to "same-sex attracted people" and "people who engage in same-sex sodomy." This distinction separates temptation from sin.

Kevin Murphy
7 months 3 weeks ago

Mercy without penance and the attempt to correct one's actions is a sham. Falling down umpteenth times in the effort to live a better life is holier than Francis's false mercy.

James Haraldson
7 months 2 weeks ago

There is nothing in the human experience more phony than claiming to be non-judgmental, especially when a self-styled claimant to “non-judgmentalism,” like our hysterically and obsessively name calling pope, decides to judge others of judging. The claim to non-judgmentalism is nothing more that a way of declaring a right to moral impunity, a pretext for declaring it wrong for anyone to judge my wrongs to be wrong.
What makes it phony is that no one is, or can be, or actually should be non-judgmental. Only a moron exercising a childish mindset, like the sort who would call a moral principle intrinsic to our humanity a “rule,” like Pope Francis for example, and a bad thing. We all make thousands of judgments of other people’s behavior every single day, and this is a good and rational thing to do. It would be evil to not judge the behavior of others and it is evil and phony to not judge and to claim to not judge the nature of right and wrong.

Henry Brown
7 months 2 weeks ago

Again, Where is Fr. Sawyer, S.J., to moderate the non-charitable remarks ?

This tim it is Pope Francis who takes it in the shins.

Christopher Lochner
7 months 2 weeks ago

Amusing as to how the tone of the article is that we should ALL aspire to being non-judgemental then individuals lament the lack of judgement towards those who disagree. This is the problem I have with all of this , again, the sheer hypocrisy: the calls to love -but only those who agree, to non-judgement-but only to those who agree, the calls for income equality-but not for those who work for the church, the call for special assistance for "Dreamers"- but not for the native born or legally arrived ( or even children of former slaves who arrived illegally and in chains) Essentially, this is Christian teaching as causes and not as the reality of personal action. Talk to student on any Jesuit campus and you'll get the sense of how very careful they have to be so as not to disagree. Love? Of course not. Much more about control and power. Why, even the seraphim are annoyed (remember Francis and his black eye- at least it wasn't his shin!))

E.Patrick Mosman
7 months 1 week ago

When Pope Francis replied "Who am I to judge?" it was essentially a direct repudiation of Jesus's instructions to his Apostles "Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." John 20-23
Just as the apostles were to carry Christ’s message to the whole world, so they were to carry his forgiveness or not, In other words to be judges.
Is it any wonder that different people hear different signals when the Pope writes or speaks?

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