Pope Francis said what now?

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis told reporters, speaking in Italian but using the English word “gay.”

That’s a bit suprising.

Let’s start with just those last five words, which may be the biggest departure in tone from his predecessor. “Who am I to judge?” wasn’t something we heard much, if ever, from Benedict XVI — a guy who seemed to enjoy heading up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition,” really) and then changed his name so that it included the word “edict.”

(EPA photo) “If you’re a seeker and you need a guide, someone to counsel you so you can find your way forward into a spiritual realm. And you’re on an airplane. Don’t look in first class.” — John Patrick Shanley

“Who am I to judge?” seems like a pretty un-pope-like thing to say. Francis, after all, was literally enthroned by his denomination as the final arbiter of all matters apostolic. He was given a hat, a scepter and a ring all symbolizing that judging is pretty much his job description. But one of the things it’s hard not to like about Francis is that he doesn’t seem overly impressed with hats, scepters, rings and thrones — and even less so now that he’s the one wearing them and sitting on them.

“Who am I to judge?” is, taken by itself, good Baptist theology, so I have to applaud that part.

This also creates a happily awkward situation for the bishops over whom Francis is bishop. Many of them — particularly here in America  — seem enormously impressed with hats and throne and scepters. “Who am I to judge?” is not a question one expects to hear from them, except maybe in order to quickly answer it themselves: “I’m the bishop, that’s who — so you’d better listen.”

Now that the pope himself has given this question his blessing, it would be nice to see it redirected toward some of those bishops. “Cardinal Dolan, who are you to judge?”

Based on some of Francis’ other recent comments, I’m not sure this subversive effect is wholly unintentional. The pope’s comments above, after all, were made on his way home from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, where his message to political leaders was “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue” and his message to tens of thousands of young people was a commission to “make a mess” in their dioceses.

Actually, according to Mary Hunt, his invitation to those young people was to become troublemakers:

On July 25, in a rousing speech to young people, he stated: “quiero lío en las diócesis,” which the English language press prissily translated as a plea for the youth to “make a mess.” I suspect that those more familiar with the Argentine way of speaking would have rendered it “go ahead and ‘screw up,’” though that is a bit unseemly for a pontiff. What Francis appears to have meant is that he wants young people to shake things up in their local situations as they manifest their faith.

Sara Benincasa’s take isn’t as hyperbolic as it seems: “New Pope Wants Kids Wilding in the Streets,” says the jokey Wonkette headline. But it’s only half-jokey. “A young person who does not protest, I do not like,” Francis said in Rio.

I’m with him on that bit, too, although I also agree with Hunt when she says of such protests and mess-making: “Whether the institutional church will permit much of it remains to be seen.”

Francis also had some good things to say about poverty and the environment, but the biggest media splash surrounded the comment at the top of this post. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” is where most of the reaction is focused.

That initial big splash came from the idea that this comment indicated some kind of big change in Catholic teaching or practice regarding LGBT people. Here I’ll take what will probably be my one and only opportunity to agree with both Fr. Geoff Farrow and Al Mohler who both note — one with dismay and the other with delight — that Francis’ remarks leave the teaching of the Catechism unchanged and unchallenged.

Father Farrow’s response is worth reading in full:

“If someone is gay…” Substitute the word “straight” for “gay” and you begin to see the problem; in fact, whenever an issue arises regarding gender orientation, simply do that: Substitute the word “straight” for “gay.” Does the statement still make sense?

Farrow has, for many years, been making a mess and protesting, and that hasn’t gone over very well with the bishops or with Francis’ predecessors, so he’s not inclined to give the new pope partial credit for at least changing the tone of his remarks. Changing the tone without changing the substance, Farrow says, “is a way of appearing to change everything without changing anything.”

He’s got a point. A change in tone without any change in substance is, well, insubstantial.

But perhaps it’s not completely insubstantial. The substance of Catholic teaching and Catholic behavior toward LGBT people needs to change. But the tone needed to change too. It matters less, but it still matters, that Francis spoke of someone who “is gay,” rather than of someone who is “homosexual” or who is “intrinsically disordered.” It is, at least, a step back from the silly authoritarian semantic games in which church leaders claim the right to define others as othered. Accepting the language that others use for themselves is a tiny step in the direction of coming to terms.

But, yes, still a relatively insubstantial step. It might mean something, I suppose, if the folks from Westboro Baptist started waving signs that read “God Hates LGBTQI People,” instead of what their infamous signs usually say now. That would be an improvement of sorts, but still a far cry from good.

So my response to this comment is much like Grandmere Mimi’s, “I don’t see the pope offering hope for any change in practice. The pope’s tone is more pastoral than previous popes, but that’s about it.” She also links to a Daily Mash bit that flips the script nicely:

A gay man has said that although Pope-ish acts are bad, a Pope-ish orientation is not.

In what his friends claim is a softening of his stance on Popes, 38-year-old gay chef Tom Logan claimed he was fine with them as long as they didn’t do any Pope stuff.

He said: “If a person is a Pope but has good will, who am I to judge them?

“And it would be even more ridiculous if I were to say that then continue by telling Popes how to behave.”

That’s pretty good Baptist theology too.

Think Progress’ Igor Volsky reports on Cardinal Tim Dolan’s damage-control efforts following Francis’ remarks:

But the Cardinal hasn’t always followed his own advice and has repeatedly condemned the rights of same-sex couples under the guise of love and support for the gay community.

After lobbying against New York’s marriage equality law, Dolan prohibited by decree any Church personnel or property from being utilized for same-sex marriage ceremonies under penalty of “canonical sanctions,” calling the state’s law “irreconcilable with the nature and the definition of marriage as established by Divine law.” He has also compared the “threat” posed to marriage by gays and lesbians to that of polygamy, adultery, forced marriagecommunist dictatorships, and incest. …

Again, we now have a set response every time Dolan says stuff like that, or whenever he calls the cops to keep gay Catholics from attending mass: “Who are you to judge?” Is he claiming to have more authority than his boss? (I seem to recall his boss’s boss also had something to say about judging others.)

William Lindsey offers his own initial response to the pope’s remarks, and his response to the response in U.S. Catholic media:

When the leaders of powerful Catholic institutions that determine what’s considered normative begin to include openly gay voices, when they ask gay and lesbian Catholics to give our testimony in official conversations that count for something in the real world, and when they begin to be willing to listen respectfully to what we have to say, even when our testimony calls on these  leaders to confront their own unmerited privilege and the way in which they have inflicted pain on fellow Catholics they have long treated as the other, I may begin to hear the words of Francis about what John Allen calls “homosexuals” with ears open to hope and joy.

He’s also got a good round-up of other thoughtful responses.

"My compiler-design professor had a testing program for the stuff students wrote. One of the ..."

Unspoken testimony
"....(Session)’s not just invoking the Bible to justify this one policy, but to justify — ..."

Romans 13 and the Gettysburg Address
"I don't think he can read above a second-grade level."

Unspoken testimony
"But we can give a trillion and a half dollars in tax cuts to billionaires, ..."

Unspoken testimony

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Daniel

    How so?

    He’s not come out and explained why gay people should be
    treated exactly like non-gay people. He hasn’t done anything to
    actually tell people how to behave with regards to gay people. Jesus was
    all about giving instructions on how to behave, which, to be fair, so
    was Benedict. I don’t see- and I’m probably missing something- how
    telling people that the church still sees homosexuality as wrong, “but
    hey, you already know that so I’ll leave you to work it out yourself” is
    more Christ like than taking a position either way. Jesus wasn’t
    wishy-washy, and Jesus preached love of your fellow man, not a smiling
    “holier than thou” tolerance until such time as they decided to accept
    they’d been wrong all along.

  • mcc

    It’s worth noting that in a situation where

    (1) everyone of both genders is gay and
    (2) among cisgender gay couplings, technology only practically exists for female couples to procreate

    then the problem mostly takes care of itself in a few generations anyway

  • Ursula L

    I’m not saying that you are saying that he is doing all that he can.

    What I am saying is, that what he is saying is in practical terms, utterly meaningless unless he is willing to use his power and spend his political capital in order to change things to ensure QUILTBAG and gender equality.

    Using words to give the impression of hope while using power to destroy the hope of beneficial change seems to be what the Vatican is best at.

    And they must be held accountable for that failing.

  • Figs

    I don’t see, though, why these things have to be exclusive. Yes, the church must be held responsible for its failures. But we can cautiously approve of marginally more tolerant rhetoric (than his predecessor) while acknowledging that it’s still an infinitesimal step, and not even that if not backed up by action. I don’t understand what’s the payoff in being even more upset now that if Francis hadn’t made his statement.

  • Guest

    Lesbians will give birth to everyone through sperm donation.

  • The Pope also said some things about expanding the role of women in the church. My feeling is that he’s actually carving out a path for “Basically we’re going to let women be priests-in-all-but-name.” Which is basically how we ended up with both Monks and Friars.

  • “Who am I to judge?” is, taken by itself, good Baptist theology, so I have to applaud that part.

    Fred, it kinda bothers me, as an ex-Catholic, that every time you talk about what’s wrong with the Church theologically, it seems to boil down to “The problem with the Catholics is that they aren’t Baptist enough. It would be good if they were more Baptist,” though this is as forthrightly as you’ve ever stated it. I get that you are yourself not a Catholic, but when it comes to Catholicism, you display a willingness to say “They are wrong because they do not believe as I do; they should change their beliefs to align with mine” that you wouldn’t show with other faiths or sects.

  • I think that’s a very generous take on it. Yes, he spoke of the need for a new theology of women, but I fear that those who write it will not take into consideration the past 40+ years of feminist theological scholarship, and will instead just put a slightly more empowering spin on Theology of the Body style complementarianism and continue to malign any woman who dares to advocate for meaningful leadership roles for women.

  • themunck

    Makes me wonder how close we are to foregoing the womb entirely and setting up those futuristic tubes instead. I mean, there are health risks associated with birth, and while the image is somewhat dystopian, I think it could grow on enough people to at least be an option. Cut sex out of procreation and vice versa entirely….right, OT and I’m rambling. Nevermind me.

  • Speaking as someone who has done a complete 180 on the whole GLBT thing (theologically speaking)…

    One of the first people to get me to start changing my mind was CS Lewis, when he said (paraphrased) “Homosexuality is one of two vices I have never struggled with, so I will not judge those who do.”

    Not the most radically supportive statement, really. He still thought homosexuality was a “vice”; about the only good thing there was that he was stepping back from judging. And yet this was a new and radical notion for me, that gradually led towards me befriending gay people without worrying about their “lifestyle”, and then a gradual change in my theology…

    Because of this, I welcome this awesome statement by Pope Francis. It is, basically, on a par with what CS Lewis was saying. Which means it could, hopefully, lead to more Catholics heading in the same direction I did.

  • Hexep

    I never joke. Everything I write has a surface meaning identical to its real meaning.

  • Hexep

    Well, rightful for Catholics. Personally, I think the whole idea’s nonsense, having a supreme priest who tells you what to do. But once you buy into the idea that there should be a supreme priest who tells people what to do, and once you willingly take up the job of being that supreme priest, you’ve gotta start telling people what to do. If you’re more of a ‘who am I to judge’ sort of rubber-necker, then, again, get out of the way.

    If you’re not comfortable with that, well, El Argentino should have thought of that before submitting his resume.

    And yes, scepter = mace = bludgeoning weapon.

  • Man. I wish I’d read that statement of his – what I remember of his open theology was that he was quite content to judge pretty much everyone, right up until Joy started (figuratively) smacking him upside the head.

  • It’s in Surprised By Joy, talking about his high school.

    The two “vices” he mentions are homosexuality and gambling; both being the only two he will not comment or judge others on.

  • Baby_Raptor

    1) Nobody “becomes” gay. Please educate yourself before forming opinions that affect other peoples’ lives.

    2) Bisexual people can and do often sleep with the other sex. It would be easy, if immoral to some, for a one night stand to get a Bi girl pregnant with a wanted baby.

    3) Ever heard of infertility treatment? Or donors?

    4) Why would you assume everyone would *want* to be gay? Or is this another cloaked “Gays are evil and want to force everyone into their routine” insult?

  • zmayhem

    He also talked a lot about the older boy/younger protege-or-catamite situation that the school turned a blind eye to, and the conclusion he came to, which certainly surprised him and must have totally flattened his readers in 1955: he was enough of an unreflective product of his time to see it as a dirty, degraded, shameful sort of love, but he was very insistent that it was still love — for at least some of the older, most privileged boys it was the only thing in the atmosphere of that school that took them out of themselves and out of the smugness and meanness and worship of wealth and status and titles that students and teachers alike swam in day and night.

    Everything else about the school’s culture, he felt, was calculated to nurture bullying, gloating, cruelty to those below you and toadying to those above; that love that sometimes arose between those boys was, simply, love. And whatever physical sin they committed, he thought, at least the love it created saved them from the infinitely more poisonous spiritual sins the school actively encouraged, connected them to something beyond their own egos, made someone else’s well-being matter more to them than their own.

    Still pretty appalling to 21st century eyes and minds, but coming out of mid-20th-century mainstream Christianity, totally staggering.

  • FearlessSon

    On these revelations, a friend of mine said of Pope Francis, “I may not agree with the path he has chosen to walk down, but I greatly admire the way in which he has chosen to walk it.”

  • That is… massively interesting. I have no idea what to make of it. So I’ll just stare and think and worry about the way our species manages to hurt each other, and the way we manage to love despite that, and… ow, though.

  • Ursula L

    The problem is that Lewis doesn’t recognize the problems of the power difference between pre-pubescent children and older students who were adults physically, and in almost every way but the strict legal definition. He sees these situations as “dirty, degraded and shameful sort of love” not because the difference in power between a child and an older teenager creates a situation of rape, but rather because the rape happens to be same-sex.

    Lewis sees shame where there is no shame, in same-sex relationships. But he also doesn’t see the shame where there is shame, in sexual interactions where there is a difference in power and maturity that makes the sexual interaction rape.

  • zmayhem

    Oh, I *totally* agree that his stance is problematic as hell and elides (though doesn’t altogether ignore) the power differential, but I am willing to take him at his word that, however fucked-up the origin of those relationships (which he does acknowledge, in a sideways and troubling but for-its-period oddly honest way), occasionally some of these ugly transactions stumbled into something different. Most of them were coercive and awful, but, very rarely, both boys actively chose each other, and even through all his social conditioning he could see that those few rare relationships had something truer and healthier in them than most of what passed for friendship there.

    Written now it’d be inexcusable and nauseous; written almost sixty years ago from within a culture that was mostly furiously unwilling to admit that any sex between two male humans could be even remotely genuinely intimate or loving, it’s… well, rather less bad than what most of his straight co-religionists were saying at the time.

  • banancat

    Yeah, whenever I hear “Who am I to judge?”, I can’t help but also hear and unspoken but implied “because it’s God’s job to judge them.” Maybe that was the Pope’s meaning and maybe it wasn’t, but I’ve heard way too much of this “love the sinner, hate the sin” stuff and have known plenty of people who claim not to judge because they are just so certain that the terrible evil person (that they’re not judging, mind you) will get their comeuppance in the afterlife.

  • Albanaeon

    Does anyone else wonder if the Pope is just trolling the Bishops for the LOLs?

    Or maybe its just me giggling over what I would do as Pope…

  • arcseconds

    I dunno — I agree that Fred has a tendency to do this (the post on ‘thrones’ sticks in my mind), but I’m not so sure this is a clear-cut example (the thrones one was far more clear-cut to my mind. Which, to his credit, he largely retracted.)

    We need to remember that Fred is not at all disinclined to give Baptists and Baptist ideas a good dressing-down when he thinks they deserve it. But there are aspects of Baptist thought he really likes and admires. And by and large I think they’re parts that most everyone here would stand for — the importance and freedom of individual conscience, for example.

    (Baptists don’t always hold to these principles, and Fred calls them out when they don’t. )

    The importance of individual conscience is also officially affirmed by the Roman Catholic church, of course, but one tends to hear more about other things from them (although, to be honest, it’d be nice to hear more about individual conscience from high-profile Baptist leaders too).

    And that’s more how I took this statement of Fred’s. More ‘hey! you like the importance of individual conscience too! so do we! and this is one of the thing things that we do that I like!’

    (a Chinese girl once told me I think like a Chinese person (on one issue, anyway). I took this as a strange sort of compliment, but not as a statement of cultural superiority. I think this sort of thing is said pretty frequently between cultures, and I’m annoyed at being unable to think of a better example…)

    now, maybe you’re right, and this is an instance of anti-papist bias. But I thought it worth giving an alternative interpretation — and it’s probably worth re-iterating (while not wanting to make a big deal over it) that I’m not the sort to reflexively defend Fred, and I’ve a degree of sensitivity to this issue, too…

  • Hexep

    It would have tremendous upsides and downsides.

    – It would entirely abolish the physical demands of pregnancy, and reduce any possibility of delivery-related health problems for mother or child.
    – Because it would not be physically onerous, all maternity (parental?) leave could be taken after the birth and none would be needed before it.
    – Potential birth defects could be spotted early. No need for ultrasounds, just look at the tube closely.
    – I read an article on the Slate about how some lesbian women with children feel angst or discomfort because their partner carried the children and that they are thus not both equally mothers; this would eliminate that.
    – Others not listed generally related to convenience, availability, and safety.

    – On the whole, does the human race really need anything to make having children easier? There’s enough of us as it is.

  • Carstonio

    Either you’re kidding or you’re scripting a National Organization for Marriage propaganda film. Scenes of empty schoolyards and shuttered maternity stores. Crowds where all couples are not just same-sex but also elderly. News publications and shows blaring headlines about the birth rate dropping to zero worldwide. Landfills with huge piles of discarded cribs and toys. Opposite-sex wedding cake toppers lying broken on the sidewalk…

    Seriously, who would really believe that homosexuality is contagious, or such a temptation that straights who have never felt any attraction for the same sex would switch in an instant?

  • Ursula L

    It is wrong to approve of marginally more tolerant rhetoric if that rhetoric is being deliberately used to change the subject, to distract people from the fact that the harmful policies remain absolutely unchanged.

    Which is what seems to be happening here, and I’m not inclined to give anyone in the Catholic hierarchy the benefit of the doubt due to their long and well-documented record of oppression.

    If, six months from now, there is real and fundamental change in policy and action, then I’ll be happy to give credit to these words as a first step. But absent any action to match the words, he gets no points.

  • Figs

    And I think it’s an assumption that you’re larding onto this that it’s being used to deliberately change the subject. It may well be the case, but you don’t offer up anything but assertion.

    All I’m saying is that the Catholic church is a big organization with a lot of history (much of it troublesome, obv), and a new Pope doesn’t have the latitude to come in and say “Hey, all that stuff those other guys said about gays is wrong, here’s the skinny,” and change policy drastically. It may not be satisfying, and I certainly wish they could just do that, but I’m willing to be cautiously…not optimistic, but curious about where it goes next. Presuming bad faith not necessarily in evidence (for instance, your presumption that this is a smokescreen to cover up the harmful policies in place or maybe a retrenchment of those policies) isn’t really a good starting point for a discussion like this.

    Are the church’s policies harmful? Yes. Absolutely. Do they, under their own precepts, have the ability to just go in and say, “I don’t like this way of doing things, so I’m just going to scrap it”? No, they really don’t. If the Pope did that, he probably figures (rightly) that the next Pope could just do the same to him, and then things just become a ping-pong representing the views of whichever octogenarian happens to be in office at the time. I don’t believe in the church’s claim of divine authority, but knowing that they do, I can see that they can’t afford to just go scuttling everything that other leaders have done in the past.

  • Charby

    I think it’s never a good plan to assume that people who are homophobic are willing to recognize trans* people as their actual gender. I can’t say it NEVER happens but it’s rare that someone is more progressive in their attitudes towards trans* people than gay people.

  • I have a hard time with the idea that the traditions, solidarity, image and authority of the church utterly trump humanitarian messages. Then I stop and realize that the Pope’s raison d’être is to perpetuate the power of the church, already one of the wealthiest and most powerful organizations in the world, and that feeling of being smacked between the eyes settles in again…

  • Figs

    Yeah, absolutely. I have a problem with that too. I’m only trying to say here that in the context of the current Catholic church, a hugely retrograde organization that just got through 8 years of a hugely retrograde leader even within the context of that organization, even as small a move as a mild shift in tone is enough to be potentially slightly encouraged about.

  • AnonaMiss

    – On the whole, does the human race really need anything to make having children easier? There’s enough of us as it is.

    I’m sorry, did you just say that removing the risk of death from pregnancy might be a bad thing because overpopulation?

    I don’t think you thought that through.

    Also, keep in mind that with surgical gamete collection, the widespread adoption of an external uterus would allow everyone to be sterilized, reducing unintended pregnancy to near 0. So on the whole, I doubt that such a development would cause a population increase; quite the contrary.

    Though since it’s women who bear all the risks of pregnancy, I don’t doubt that the Catholic church and plenty of other fundies would declare the technology unnatural – an abomination.

  • Mass sterilization seems like it has its share of potentially very awful implications as well, such as “a tyrannical government could easily regulate who is and isn’t allowed to have children.” It’d have to be something you’d opt into, and even that’s not a sure idea (coercion, informed consent, etc.)

  • Hexep


    I just read my thing, and then I read your thing…

    I think I’m gonna let this one go without comment.

  • “Does the human race really need anything to make having children easier” is the sort of thing you can only say if you’ve never had a half-made human sit on your internal organs for several months before squeezing it out of your genitals.

  • (a Chinese girl once told me I think like a Chinese person (on one
    issue, anyway). I took this as a strange sort of compliment, but not as
    a statement of cultural superiority. I think this sort of thing is
    said pretty frequently between cultures, and I’m annoyed at being unable
    to think of a better example…)

    I’m surprised you weren’t bothered by it. I mean, if the roles had been reversed, the equivalent phrase would be “That’s mighty white of you.”

  • Hexep

    Well, then, people should stop doing it if it’s such a pain in the ass.

  • arcseconds

    Why interpret it as a racial statement rather than as a cultural one? ‘that’s a very English thing to say’ normally wouldn’t be considered particularly bothersome, would it?

    (not that I’m English, but people often think I am, so I get this rather more often than comments about how Chinese I am…)

    Also, it makes a difference coming from someone experienced in both Chinese culture and Western culture, and when they’re not talking as a member of the dominant culture.

  • Well, then, people should stop doing it if it’s such a pain in the ass.

    So, tearing of the perineum is totally a thing, and hemmoroids are totally a thing, but all the same, I think you may have a slight misunderstanding of the relevant biology if you think the major issue is in that department.

  • Hexep

    Oh ho ho, you cut me to the quick !

  • The Leaf Blower is in the garage Jorge. And don’t forget to wash your hands before and after touching it. lol

    (*le gasp*) You have discovered the famed earlier drafts of The Name of the Rose, thought to be lost forever?