“Who Am I to Judge?” Revisited


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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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