Pope Francis asked the title question aboard the papal plane while returning from Brazil on July 28, 2013. He made international news when asked whether there was a gay lobby in the Vatican during a press conference aboard the plane. He answered, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” This question later returned in December 2019 with the two-year synodal process of the German bishops which ended in February 2022. According to a press release issued by the German bishops at its opening, the process began with an “expert consultation” conducted by four diocesan bishops “on whether the prohibition of homosexual acts by the Church’s magisterium was ‘still up-to-date’ – and whether artificial contraception should still be condemned by the Church for ‘both married and unmarried’ couples,” among other things. The purpose of this essay will be to answer Pope Francis’s question in view of assessing the results of the German Synod which recently concluded “with votes in favor of draft texts calling for same-sex blessings and changes to the Catechism on homosexuality.”
So, who am I to judge? An obvious answer to the question is, “I am no one to judge,” since the Father has committed all judgment to his Son, Jesus Christ (Jn. 5:22), leading St. Paul to exhort the Romans “to stop judging one another” (Rm. 14:13). We are not meant to judge another person by closing the loop of justice on his or her life with a final verdict before God when the final verdict belongs to Christ, and Him alone. There is always hope for any man or woman this side of the grave to meet God, repent, and return to the way of salvation. Jesus testified to this upon the cross when He forgave the repentant thief (Lk. 23:43). The conclusion follows: we are no one to judge and so, “stop judging,” right? Well, yes and no.
We are not meant to judge another person by closing the loop of justice with a final verdict on his or her life before God, since all such determinations have been handed over to Jesus by the Father. But there is another sense in which we must judge, namely, as it relates to conscience, because conscience is a judgment. Pope Saint John Paul II defined conscience as follows in Veritatis Splendor (#59): “The judgment of conscience is a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do or not do, or which assesses an act already performed by him. It is a judgment that applies to a concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil. This first principle of practical reason is part of the natural law” (italics in the original).
We are obliged to form our conscience on how to make judgments about good deeds to be done or evil ones to be avoided, while suspending fully resolved judgments about persons as they stand before God, whether in life or in death. As regards discernible judgments relative to good and evil, it would be indefensible to say that Pope Francis intended for us to suppress our consciences by asking the question, “who am I to judge?” In fact, we are making these judgments all the time. For example, it is commonplace today to judge McDonald’s as a subpar establishment for eating dinner and when was the last time anyone mounted a vigorous defense of laying on the couch, day and night, binging series episodes on Netflix? Judgments about diet, exercise, and entertainment affect our life in the body, but so do judgments about sexual behavior and practice. It would be inconsistent to say that one set of judgments about life in the body is acceptable, namely, diet and exercise, while the other set of judgments is not.
It would be unsustainable for Catholic life to press the no-judgment clause into becoming a full-blown suppression of conscience, whereby deeds are no longer assessed and judged as to their goodness or evil. There’s too much at stake – like salvation and life – to sustain that degree of negligence. The received word of God has perennially assessed same-sex activity and artificial birth control to be contrary to human nature as designed by the Logos and so to be avoided. Yet the German bishops were poised to suppress well-formed judgments of conscience based in the received word of God which, according to Dei Verbum (#10), is not “Scripture alone” but Scripture and tradition: “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God.” The sacred deposit of the word of God possesses power for promoting life in time and in eternity; it is the message of salvation laid down in Christ who entrusted it, not to scholars in Jerusalem by disputation, but to the apostles in His life, death and resurrection. It doesn’t belong to scientific “experts,” but to believers and experts who believe. Authentic interpretation of this sacred deposit is entrusted to “the living teaching office of the Church” which “is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit.”
This means that the word of God in the Catholic Church concerning sexual morality possesses an eternal horizon and not only a temporal one. By our life in the body, the horizon should be dawn, not dusk; the Son should be rising on our life, not setting and the sacred deposit of the word of God is our guide. It was, however, judged suspect by the German bishops for being “out of date” with more recent “advancements” in science whose aim and focus is temporal, not eternal. Human reason and the sciences enter into the formation of conscience to be sure, but the genius of the word of God down through the ages has been the convergence of human reason with divine revelation through faith, a convergence of the temporal with the eternal, not only for this generation, but perennially and consistently throughout all generations, everywhere, since the time of Christ and the apostles. Science alone cannot supply a goal to Catholic life that does it justice. This comes only through divine revelation laid down and fulfilled in Christ which provides the eternal perspective and instruction necessary for properly evaluating the truth and benefit claims found within science.
So, to answer the question, “who am I to judge?” might look something like this in the first person for any practicing Catholic: I am a fully initiated and believing member of the Catholic Church who has inherited a long and rich tradition of Catholic teaching, universally applied, which aims to preserve and enhance, rather than harm or compromise human life and dignity in time and for all eternity. I, therefore, attempt to put the long held, developed, and sacred deposit of the word of God into practice by allowing it to form my judgments about life in the body, seeking to put into practice good deeds while avoiding evil ones. By the sacramental calling I receive as a Catholic through faith, I feel challenged to conform the times to eternity rather than eternity to the times and remain grateful for this sacred heritage.
Image: BERLIN, GERMANY, FEBRUARY – 16, 2017: The painting of Last Judgment in church Marienkirche by Michael Ribestein (1558). Shutterstock: Renata Sedmakova