“If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”
That single sentence, reverberating round the world in the summer of 2013, ignited a firestorm of controversy—and confusion. Had those words been spoken by anyone other than a pope, they surely would have gone unnoticed. But they were, indeed, spoken by Pope Francis, himself.
What was going on here? Was this a new teaching on same-sex relations? A new opening for a cultural reformation of the Church? Or a radical liberal tolerance guaranteed only to accelerate the already disturbing rate of moral decline? Well, no, no, and no. There’s actually nothing new here at all, theologically speaking, but rather something quite old and seemingly forgotten.
While Pope Francis steadfastly affirms the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, this wasn’t the point. Rather, his response pointed to something much bigger than the singular topic, and transcended it for far greater consequence.
Implicit in his statement is a cautionary tale for anyone inclined to judge his neighbor—and particularly those living outside the Church.
Everyone is familiar with the maxim, “judge not,” but there is something far more dangerous lurking between the lines of this often-misused verse. Basically, it’s a deal. And the deal is this: If you dish it out, be prepared to take it. And make no mistake, there will be something to take.
There’s a surprising corollary to this idea in The Lord’s Prayer, in which we are taught to forgive others in the same measure that we seek forgiveness from God. There is a balance here that keeps the deal honest and fair. Too easily, these oft-repeated prayers become rote, and their practical and spiritual meanings in the daily here and now become blunted. I have to remind myself from time to time that these are powerful, potent words of eternal consequence! They’re also humbling. That he who loves much is also forgiven much. Besides, as à Kempis warns, “You should not reckon yourself better than others, lest perhaps in the eyes of God, Who knows what is in man, you are considered worse!”
Recall the episode where the scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery. They sought to entrap Him by way of a challenge to reconcile His teachings with Moses’ command to stone such a woman. Jesus’ response was one for the ages: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, they dropped their stones and slinked away.
Imagine the astonishment—and the unimaginable relief—of the woman when she realized the crowd had dispersed. “Where are they?” Jesus asks. “Has no one condemned you?” She replies meekly, sheepishly, “No one, sir.” Then came another response for all time, “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus tells her. “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Now, no one knows what Jesus was busy writing in the sand as he engaged the scribes and Pharisees in their little game of gotcha. But clearly, if anyone was made to feel condemned—perhaps by the very judgement they themselves were dishing out—it was those hypocrites.
Indeed, as Thomas à Kempis reminds us in The Imitation of Christ, “The light which is in us is but little . . . We oftentimes forget how great our inward blindness is. We often do wrong; and, what is worse, excuse ourselves . . . We are quickly enough sensitive about what we suffer from others, and dwell upon it, but what they have to bear from us, that we never think of. He who well and rightly considers his own doings, is not likely to judge hardly concerning another.”
Elsewhere, à Kempis advises, “Turn your eyes upon yourself, and avoid passing judgment upon other men’s doings. In judging others a man labors to no purpose, very often errs, and easily falls into sin. But to judge and examine himself is always a labor full of profit.” It is quite possible that these labors will also be full of profit for those people we’d otherwise be tempted to judge.
Francis consummates his thoughts on this topic by reflecting on Jesus’ works of mercy, which always triumph over judgement. “By welcoming a marginalized person whose body is wounded,” he says, “and by welcoming the sinner whose soul is wounded, we put our credibility as Christians on the line. Let us always remember the words of Saint John of the Cross: ‘In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.’”