Explaining 'Who am I to judge?,' Pope Moves LGBT Discussion One Step Further

Statement of Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry, on Pope Francis’ latest comments on LGBT issues.

Pope Francis

Like so many times before, an interview with Pope Francis is once again making headlines around the world, not least because of comments he made concerning lesbian and gay people.  While positive and welcoming, as his previous statements have been, the pope’s latest comments do not offer an “smoking gun” as to where he stands on the morality of same-gender relationships, the role of conscience in the lives of LGBT people, or pastoral guidelines for LGBT ministry. Still, these comments are important in moving the discussion of lesbian and gay people in a more positive direction

In his latest comments, made public in a new book by Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, the pontiff attempts to explain his famous “Who am I to judge?” statement, which was his answer to a question about gay priests, and which has been widely interpreted to be his comment on all LGBT people.

According to The National Catholic Reporterwhich received an advance English language version of the book entitled The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis offered this explanation:

“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? 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. 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.”

“I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it.”

While the pope’s comments don’t fully clarify his approach to LGBT people, these new remarks do highlight some important points about his thinking on lesbian and gay issues:

  1. He sees his welcoming approach as totally consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and not a departure from it.
  2. He sees that the critical focus on LGBT issues is on individual persons, not on categories.  In this, he makes a radical departure from his two previous predecessors who favored framing the discussion of homosexuality in terms of sexual acts, not in terms of persons.
  3. He talks about God loving people, not about condemnation.  The emphasis on God’s love has not been a major point of church leaders’ discourse on LGBT issues.
  4. He talks about “encounter,” “accompaniment,” and “praying together,” not about alienating and distancing the Church from LGBT people.
  5. Perhaps most important is what is NOT mentioned by the pope.  He does not speak about condemnation or moral evaluations.  Clearly, this pope is not as obsessed with sexual activity as his previous predecessors have been.

His comment about confession can raise a red flag for some.  I don’t think we should read too much into it, though.  I don’t think he was calling for gay and lesbian people to confess sexual “sins” based on their orientations and commitments.  From other things he has said, especially in speaking about the Year of Mercy, I think Pope Francis sees confession as a good thing for all people to experience and celebrate God’s mercy.  I think he sees confession as an important step in developing a relationship with God.  The ambiguity of his raising the topic of confession shows how important it is for him to speak more clearly and less cryptically.

Pope Francis’ latest comments on lesbian and gay people reflect his broader project of building a church that propagates mercy, not doctrines.   In the book, he offers description about the distinction between mercy and doctrine:

“I will say this: mercy is real; it is the first attribute of God.

“Theological reflections on doctrine or mercy may then follow, but let us not forget that mercy is doctrine. Even so, I love saying: mercy is true.”

Again, this description is something that was not heard of in John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s comments about doctrine which always emphasized truth, but rarely, if ever, mentioned mercy in relationship to it.

Pope Francis still has some work to do with LGBT issues.  We still need to see his ideas further developed, and, more importantly, incarnated into the pastoral life of the church.  We await his report on the marriage and family synods of the last two years, and we hope that his ideas about welcome and acceptance are given more concrete details in that document.

These latest statements, however, are a welcome next step in his evolution, and they move the discussion of LGBT issues in the Catholic Church into a much friendlier space than they have ever been.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


14 replies
  1. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Your optimism is pleasant, but item 5 entirely misses the point of what Francis said. He talked about the homosexual person, but did not include those who engage in homosexual acts or full marriages between homosexual persons. On these two critical points he focuses on the need for confession, being shown the way, and then going forward along that path. I see nothing to cheer about for the lived experiences of anyone who is fully homosexual. He does not call for burning at the stake which many/most African bishops seem to favor, but that is hardly an heroic stance.
    Best of the New Year to you and all at New Ways.

    • newwaysministryblog
      newwaysministryblog says:

      Tom, I see your interpretation as a valid one, and I thank you for bringing it up, but it is not one that I share. In my response, to Larry, below, I mentioned that I did not see the comment about confession being focused on sexuality. I can see how one can view it that way, but it was not the way I read it, and I explained why below. I’ve also since updated the post to explain my thoughts on the matter, thanks to yours and Larry’s comments.

  2. Loretta Fitzgerald
    Loretta Fitzgerald says:

    Thank you for this update. If we welcome anyone in mercy, we may hear her or his story. Then the floodgates of mercy pour down upon all of us.

  3. Larry
    Larry says:

    You missed this one. Pope Francis wants homosexuals to “come to confession”. Why? I assume that since he is looking only at their sexuality that he suggests there is some sin inherent in their sexuality that needs confessing. And then other people [who by the way? Priests? Heterosexual Christians? Courage leaders?] should then walk with the homosexual person. Going where? To the truth of heterosexuality or the reasonableness of celibacy? Again, a lot of vague language open to all interpretations that move us where? More Vatican parsing and muddling.

    This is not the conversation the Catholic Church should be having at this late date. As Tom said before, at least the Pope does not say homosexuals should be stoned [although he was silent on the pro-violence position of the African Cardinals etc when he was there] but that is mild progress.

    • newwaysministryblog
      newwaysministryblog says:

      Larry, thanks for your comment. I did not see his invitation to confession as being for gay and lesbian people to confess sexual “sins” based on their orientations and commitments. From other things he has said, especially in speaking about the Year of Mercy, I think Pope Francis sees confession as a good thing for all people to experience and celebrate God’s mercy.

      This, however, may be open to interpretation, and shows that Pope Francis’ does not always make the most clear statements. I will add my thoughts about his confession comment to the post.

  4. Steve
    Steve says:

    Frank, let me begin by saying how much I appreciate Bondings 2.0. I appreciate the daily updates regarding LGBT issues and the Catholic Church. But todays comments are another example of trying to read the tea leaves in a positive light. Yes, the tone of the discussion has changed. But the doctrines of the Church have not as witness by the seemingly daily firings of gay catholics in church-related institutions. For me. it’s all too little, too late. I did not come out until I was nearly 54. And up until that time, I lived the life demanded by the church….single, celibate, a life focused solely on work, But as I approached my mid 50s, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I feared I was going to become suicidal as my career wound down and sources of emotional support (my parents) passed away. It took two years of counseling….and lots of tears,,,,but I finally came to terms with being gay. And, for me, a big part of that acceptance was to leave the Church. I formally joined the Episcopal Church in 2010. No more hoping for change in the Catholic Church. The change was within me.

  5. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    I concur Bondings 2.0 is next to NCR in reporting accurate news and with few exceptions inspiring analysis, but I am still waiting for grace to come from the Vatican when it comes to accepting LGBT people as good, natural humans. As a professor defending the anti-gay status quo said, if homosexuals aren’t “inherently disoriented” , then the Church’s argument falls apart. That is what Francis needs to retract. He probably won’t do that until B16 departs the scene, but it is a daily sin to wait that long.

  6. Rudy
    Rudy says:

    Within the last couple months, I’ve been attending a Byzantine Catholic church with my partner of almost 20 years. I was raised Roman Catholic and he is Presbytarian, we’ve gained interest in the Byzantine rite after having a couple of icons blessed at this parish and my partner had considered converting up until I made the call to the parish priest today who informed me that we are welcome to attend the liturgy but that I couldn’t take communion as a gay man. While the priest is a great guy and assured me that GOD created me as I was, church doctrine doesn’t not allow for gay and divorced straight couples to partake in the Body and Blood of our Lord. After the call, a rush of emotions ran through me and I found myself sobbing with such a profound sadness like a ton of bricks landed on me. When my partner got home, I explained what the priest had told me and his answer was,”well I like the church and the priest’s sermons but if we’re treated like second class citizens why would we tithe with the church, let’s just remain as visitors”. Not sure what to think now as I had been taking communion but sad that I’d just have to sit it out.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  3. […] year began with the release of a book-length interview with the pope entitled The Name of God is Mercy. In it, Francis expanded on his now famous 2013 […]

  4. […] some important points about his thinking on lesbian and gay issues,” DeBernardo said in a post on the New Ways […]

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