The Catholic Thing
“Who Am I to Judge?” Revisited Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 27 May 2014

On the Internet, Pope Francis’ question “Who am I to judge?” – is cited hundreds of times. Almost always, the citation implies some approval of homosexual life-style. Two scriptural passages are close to the same phrase: “Who was I (Peter) that could withstand God?” (Acts 11:17); “Who are you to pass judgment on another’s servant?” (Romans 14:4)

Pope Francis’s question occurred in and interview as he was returning from  World Youth Day in Rio. The pope referred to a gay person who “is searching for the Lord and has good will.” In that context, one could say: “Who am I to judge?” But what of one who does not “search” or have “good will?”

If the same gay man were actually confessing in the Sacrament, the priest would have to “judge” either to give absolution or not, depending on his assessment of the man’s resolve to “sin no more.” If the man did sin and was repentant, his sins are forgiven. Forgiveness, however, is not license to return to old ways, even though it is difficult to change habits. We can sin again and be forgiven again. Forgiveness of sins is what Christianity is about. It is not about making what is a sin not a sin.

Pope Francis words – “Who am I go judge?” – are usually understood to mean that what is called by the Scripture or the Church a “sin” need not be considered as such. Thus, analogously, practitioners of divorce, contraception, homosexuality, drugs, adultery, abortion, fetal experimentation, and euthanasia are no longer “judged” to be “wrong.”

In this misreading, the Church has “changed.” Not even the pope, by his own admission, can say anything effective about those who engage in such practices.

A whole industry has arisen to show that this pope did not “mean” to change any basic teachings. He was restating the classical doctrine that God was the final judge of each individual soul. He did not mean that God suddenly changed His mind on divorce, fornication, adultery, abortion, homosexuality, gay marriages, euthanasia or other widely practiced issues.

      St. Peter by Pompeo Batoni, c. 1740

“Who am I to judge?” means, basically, that God makes the laws of being. We do not. But He does make them. They are for our good. To violate any one of them will undermine some aspect of our being and good. We can trace what happens when we make what is evil to be good in the lives of human beings and societies.

“Sin,” as such, is evil, but that is not the last word. We can freely repent. The New Testament begins with “repent and believe.” What cannot be “forgiven” are “ideas” that make evil good in such a way that we now advocate what is evil as “our good.” When Pope Francis cited the “Who am I to judge?” passage, he was widely understood to have, in effect, blessed relativism. Many people today simply “assume” that, with Pope Francis, the Church has now accepted “modernity.” Implicitly, she admits that her famous prohibitions were wrong.

The similar passage in Acts concerned the salvation of Gentiles. The immediate issue was eating meat of animals designated as “unclean” by the Old Law. Peter has a vision, guided by the Holy Spirit, no less. He sees that all animals, tame and wild, are clean. All of these are good. (I often cite this passage to my vegetarian friends). Peter had just insisted that he would not violate the Law. He is corrected. He is to distinguish what is essential from what is not. He is not to “withstand” (judge) God.

Peter is thus free to eat, or not eat, whatever he wants. He just cannot say to someone who enjoys quail or pork chops that it is “wrong” to eat them. Such a principle, of course, cannot be used to recommend sugar, a good, to a diabetic. We are still to use our brains.

Peter was not only corrected about food, but also about who can be included in the new community. At first, Peter thought only Jews were to be included. But suddenly he is confronted by Cornelius, a Roman soldier. (Acts 10) He has had a vision. He is to go to Joppa and find Peter. Peter realizes that this man must be accepted.

Peter finally says: “I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality. Rather the man of any nation who fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” (11:34-35) Peter does not say that anyone who leads a life that is not “upright” is “acceptable” to God. To “fear” God obviously means that God stands for something, not just anything.

The glorious run of “Who am I to judge?” has often become a tool to reverse the moral order. It can confuse the liberation that comes from acting rationally within metaphysical and moral order with acting “freely,” wherein nothing exists but what “I judge,” whatever I choose.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is CatholicThe Modern AgePolitical Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Readingand Reasonable Pleasures.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (26)Add Comment
written by Carlos Caso-Rosendi, May 27, 2014
Who is he to judge? Well His Holiness is the Pope, a man sent to the people of God for that purpose. Certainly Peter had to be taught the universal mission of the Church. The boundaries of Israel were no longer the limits to salvation. And yet Peter was not taught to ignore all limits whatsoever. Thank you Fr Schall for this illuminating article.
written by ted seeber, May 27, 2014
It is articles like this, and the Pope statement being misquoted ,that make me wonder if the Jesuit Order has embraced moral relativism. We lay Catholics need a clear teaching from the Order, taught by everyone, including Georgetown, that relativism is always and forever wrong. Forgiveable, yes, but a highly destructive error that destroys love itself.
written by Manfred, May 27, 2014
Dear Father:

When Sec'y of State, John Kerry, a catholic who proudly supports both abortion and sodomite "marriage, is honored recently at Boston (Jesuit) College with Cdl O'Malley in attendance, it is truly time to end this farce, turn out the lights and lock the doors. The American church is nothing more than a secular business supported by frauds and dolts.
written by ROB, May 27, 2014
It is hard to believe that a Cardinal of the Church and a former Jesuit Provincial failed to realize that the words who am I to judge said in the context of homosexuality would not be taken at face value. He wasn't speaking at a theological convention but to a secular press almost universally disposed to sympathize with homosexuals. It is hopeless to attempt a convincing biblical meaning to the exchange. Leaders, especially Popes touching on moral matters, have a duty to be clear in their communications. I suspect this Pope is fully aware of that.
written by Robert Royal, May 27, 2014
Ted you've misread Fr Schall as saying things he's explaining others have said. The whole point of the column us that a Catholic cannot be a relativist or reason the way many do.
written by Jack,CT, May 27, 2014
Most non catholic readers will never understand the
holy Father and his words on that flight home and
perhaps a good thing,as it may trigger an interest.

One would think that a church (Ours) with a large
proportion of gay priests that deal with there
issues with Catholic teachings,there would be
a sigh of relief from his words?

The sex scandal and all the souls ruined by decade
after decade of purposful cover ups and Moving
sinners from parish to parish to spread the disease
filled souls,devils behind white collars was pandemic!

Seems to me Men and woman with same sex attraction who
battle it and repent are in far better shape than
-what the Bishops solution was!

In the 1960"S a Priest rehab" was born and the offenders
were sent to (Many) resort to find healing and we found
nearly 100% went back to there criminality!

So as Priests were hiding there shame behind a religion
and more and more people were raped and ruined for life
while preaching hate and intolerance of "Gays",we
have a scandal over the Holy Fathers "One Sentence"
remarks about "Tolerance",how ironic?

Most VA Hospitals are great but the bad apples at a few
has tainted the entire VA,sound familar?

I have met very Holy priests and I hope I die i the
presence of one,but I also see the signs in front of
The 85 year old lady lay in front of the church and
the words of the priest were spoken "At" my "tween"
relative.I felt a profound sickness at the pit of
my stomach.

To the grave a few minutes later and I see him
following and glaring at Joe seemingly unaware
a funeral is on the agenda-

Inapropriate question after another as I stand there
holding the casket!

"Uncle Jack can I go to the car? he is strange!"
Yes" Please!
I dare say I almost went to jail that day but he
have to the morgue and alot of good that would
have done.

I think the Holy Fr was speaking of those who
struggle with same sex attraction NOT those who
May "Embrace" the lifestyle!
Those of us who have been around awhile should have

understood this.

Father I understand 'Most" priests are good men
real men but Mother church must never forget
the "worker bees" (Parish Priests) of the church
have a higher % of gays than say any other
profession and the church scandal bears that out.
Most agree we should be helping to get
rid of the predators and not attacking the Holy
Father and his wise words of wisdom!

written by Dennis Larkin, May 27, 2014
I think a full understanding of Christ's admonition is that we are not to judge people as guilty in their souls. And we are not to judge people as innocent in their souls. We are to leave the judging of people's souls to God. We are not to find people innocent or guilty, but to leave it up to God.
written by grump, May 27, 2014
Nice try, father, but all the nuanced twists and turns and semantic gymnastics cannot undo the impression left by the Pope's ill-chosen words.

Unlike his immediate predecessors, who left no ambiguity in their comments, Francis, in trying to appeal to a secular audience, often stumbles into rhetorical miasma. Herewith the latest example, bound to stoke the social media fires:

From a news report Tuesday, May 27:

"For the first time since his election, the pope said that it is 'not a dogma' that members of the clergy must abstain from sex. He made the remark in a chat with reporters on his way back to the Vatican from a historic trip to the Middle East.

“It is a rule of life that I appreciate very much, and I think it is a gift for the church, but since it is not a dogma, the door is always open,” Francis said on Monday.

Now that the "door is always open," it can be inferred that 2,000 years of Church teaching are no longer set in stone. As such, the Rock that has stood as the foundation of the Church is beginning to crumble.
written by Ted Seeber, May 27, 2014
I hope so. I wish Fr. Schall's argument was more discernable at a first read. Because I've seen what has happened with allowing the argument in at all.

From the other side of the country- I have Judge Michael McShane, educated by Jesuits at Gonzaga redefining marriage- and refusing to allow any dissent away from the gay-is-great agenda in his court room or opinions. We've got a former Jesuit provincial in Spokane, already disgraced in the sex scandals, leading Catholic high school students on gay rights marches. We had the Sandra Fluke spectacle of Georgetown, and Notre Dame gave an honorary degree to a sitting President who is a genocidal maniac when it comes to the "unwanted".

Isn't it time to stop the weak rational arguments, and come out with a strong statement that sin still exists? No matter what the cost?

The rational argument for sin seems to have been roundly rejected by every Jesuit institution in favor of "Academic Freedom", which seems to be the freedom to teach that a malformed conscience is better than a rational church at teaching morality.
written by Pietro Pantalones, May 27, 2014
We are deeply into the realm of 1 Corinthians 14:8.

Also, good morning, Jack. I couldn't understand what you were trying to say.
written by Alex Abate Biral, May 27, 2014
In the interview that the Pope gave, he is clearly not condoning homosexual acts. He doesn't condemn homosexuals any more than he condemns angry people. Someone with a propensity for anger may well end up committing sins. That doesn't mean a person, for the quality of being easily led to anger, is in some way inferior to a normally calm person.

In fact, a devoted but angry person may well escape his own sins, while a calm but materialistic person may, in a situation that really leads him to anger, do a far worse crime than if he was easily made furious. And may even furthermore not repent.

A propensity isn't itself a sin, and sins one has made before shouldn't be held against him (though crimes may need to be punished by justice). All the Pope did was say that any sexual relations Monsignor Ricca may or may not have had had nothing to do with his charges or his position in the church.

The Pope is, after all, supposed to say the truth. Bringing the truth of God closer to the people is a big part of his job after all. Should the pope try avoiding saying anything from now on to avoid being misunderstood? He will be pretty much silent then. It is not the Pope who has to be silent, but we catholics that need to unite and explain away mistakes like this, instead of getting desperate over nothing.

I think a valid complaint might be not about what the pope has said, but what he hasn't. Certainly, a little more validation of the immutable foundations of the Church might help us with all these issues that seem to be cropping, from self called catholics who are anything but. However, I feel the issue isn't so much what Pope Francis has said but what the media has focused. And I am hopeful that a good example of that is forthcoming from the Family Synod later this year.
written by Jack,CT, May 27, 2014
Read Again Pedro-
written by Chris in Maryland, May 27, 2014
Well said Pietro.
written by DS, May 27, 2014
Pope Francis makes an important distinction between sin (in this case, illicit sex) and the person. The Church often conflates the two. Fr. Schall's language is a bit fuzzy, but he seems to imply that just being "gay" is what requires absolution, whether the sin of illicit sex has occured or not.

It reminds me of Pope Benedict's quixotic attempt to "ban" gay seminarians and priests. I wonder whether Francis will loosen this over time.
written by Jack,CT, May 27, 2014
@DS,yes it is left as you say "Fuzzy",sadly
written by Sherry, May 27, 2014
Thank you, Father Schall.
written by Jack,CT, May 27, 2014
Just finished watching the horrible story of
Fr Erickson of Wisconsin,Priest only in name!!
the list of what he was:Murdered two, abuser
of children of the flock,drunk,Moved 150 miles
away when the "Heat" was on the typical story
and a coward that hung himself when outed.

(All on "ID" chan,on the new series, "siister

The interesting part was the suicide note he
left about his sins; Paraphraseing, "you
will never prove it"

I am so done with those who ignore what is

in front of all of us and I have faith the

"evil one" will not but we must face the wounds

of our church, How Many More Have to become

wounded and ruined before we wake up?

I pray for our Church and all who need help

may they find it in Jesus Name, Amen

(Bishops please stop moving these priests around
the country as you suspect crimes and report
the criminals and let justice be done,I am done
with my pleas, Thanks-And God Bless
written by Marcelus, May 27, 2014
Humbly I think something else. As you know the Pope is Argentinean, so am I. This phrase which had caused so much stir, was said as you know? When thePope was speaking on the plane and in Italian. Argentine Spanish is extremely italianized, we use words as ' laburar' for 'work' that comes from the Italian laborare and so. That said, the ' qui sonno io per ..., is exactly the same we use in Argentina: 'quien soy yo para juzgarlo? 'But, here is point, it does not refer to the person per se, it addresses the intention. The Pope if I recall, said in italian, ' I'f a person is gay and seeks the Lord in good will, who am I to judge him? ', it does not point at the person but to the intention. Is it as though you said:my neighbors want to leave their for open at night, who am I to judge them? ' I am referring to their idea of leaving the door open at night crazy or not.
It's hard to explain this but it refers to the action or idea? But the person.
written by Chris in Maryland, May 28, 2014
And all will be well...
written by Matt, May 28, 2014
History does not repeat but it does rhyme.

Pope Honorius via Catholic encyclopedia.

written by Robert, May 29, 2014
I happened to be reading and studying Romans at the time of the famous comment. Is there a message in Romans 2 for the post-modernist Catholic evangelist? Is it coincidence that the Divine Mercy devotion has globally swept through the Church in recent decades? Is a return to Moralism the channel of engagement with the dying? What exactly is the treasure carried in these earthen vessels? Micah ch 6 vs 8
written by Brian, May 29, 2014
"Pope Francis’ question “Who am I to judge?” – is cited hundreds of times.Almost always, the citation implies some approval of homosexual life-style."

Personally, I did not take it to imply some approval of a gay lifestyle, but rather what he said literally - it is not for us to judge others. I thought this was consistent with the Pope's effort to use faith to unite, not divide us. This entire article ignores such a message - but seeks to double down on a Catholic's "right" to judge others, perhaps feel better about him/herself in doing so, notwithstanding Christ's clear directive NOT to do so, and that judgment is His. Small wonder that this cultural Enlightenment we are experiencing, like the scientific Enlightenment of the 17-18th centuries, is resulting in people leaving a Church which chooses not to adapt.
written by Steve , May 29, 2014
In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium paragraph 34 Pope Francis warns of the media distorting statements and that we all must "not assume our audience understands
the full background of what we are saying or is capable of relating what we are saying to the Gospel message." Applying this to the Holy Father's "who am I To judge" and other ambiguous statements we should not be surprised at how they are misunderstood. In our age one must not even assume the majority of Catholics have even opened the CCC let alone secular audiences
written by Peter Shafton, May 29, 2014
Thank you Father Schall for a great article. It has provided a marvellous opportunity for a good, animated discussion on a subject not often discussed.
Rather than trying to pick out the exact meaning of each word Pope Francis used – in a language that’s not even his mother-tongue (thank you Marcelus for your input), I suppose we should try to work out the big picture our Pope was trying to convey.
Remember the woman who was caught in adultery? … Jesus did not condemn her. So if Jesus did not condemn an obvious adulteress, how can ANYONE even a Pope judge a person with homosexual inclination? The second part of Jesus’ conversation with the woman is here taken for granted, when He told her to “SIN NO MORE”.
The twisted mindset of our modern media may insinuate all it wants, but I think our Pope said it exactly as it should have been said.
Gosh! He needs our prayers.
written by Mark, May 30, 2014
It was written, "Unlike his immediate predecessors, who left no ambiguity in their comments...."

Hundreds upon hundreds of people have twisted and misrepresented the words of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to fit their un-Catholic political, personal, and theological ends.
written by William F. Folger, June 01, 2014
Fr. Schall, your above illumination “What cannot be “forgiven” are “ideas” that make evil good in such a way that …” prompts this magisterium-faithful Catholic to hopefully legitimately help with the shortly-following “Forgiveness-Question” to be treated by the Synod on the family. Consider a validly married Catholic who later admits to being a main cause of an eventual legal divorce followed up with an adultery-sinful, civil-only marriage complicated by existing children via both “new spouses” and in which the Catholic’s “new” spouse is understandably unwilling to live as ‘brother and sister’. Can such a ‘re-married’ Catholic be forgiven by God AND officially recognized as forgiven by the Church to the point of publicly receiving Holy Communion when the Catholic becomes TRULY sorrowful and *personally sincerely willing* to live as brother and sister (repentance plus firm purpose) though also decisively too fearful of likely additional harm to the children via risking breaking up another marriage? Feared impact on the combined children is why the now truly-contrite Catholic understandably feels trapped until death which could come suddenly and unexpectedly as we all know. We could say God knows the heart and will be accordingly-merciful; yes, but left unguarded, that could invite a very casual, wrong public attitude (‘Catholic divorce’) toward the importance of indissoluble Catholic marriage.
I write because I feel deeply for such people and now *tentatively see* that it might be resolved within the scope of “cooperation in evil” theology under which Church-teaching can in suitable circumstances rightly allow, for example, the HHS “contraception” mandate to be reluctantly obeyed *depending on the severity of the consequences to others for not obeying*, as explained by well respected, magisterium-faithful Catholic theologian Prof. Janet E. Smith though some other good theologians disagree.
The public perception of the Church needs to be well-protected from potential abuse by heading off people playing games to thus project non-existent ‘Catholic divorce’. Hence the official teaching about such a solution must include a verified detailed understanding of it by ALL those intending Catholic marriages. When cases like the above occur, a critical phase MUST include a personal private confession in which the penitent clearly and fully admits to the priest their past guilt AND the priest clearly explains that any mental reservations or false information given in Confession, say, to induce likelihood of full forgiveness will nullify their confession and presumed good relationship with God. In that way the Mercy of God Glows in the Public Square and the indissolubility of valid Catholic marriage remains undamaged. To help people avoid those FIRST steps of alienation it seems wise to encourage often-missing *introspection* by highlighting the ETERNAL anger toward-SELF for becoming one of the “weepers and ‘gnashers’ of teeth”.

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