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