The Pope’s lessons in how to judge people


I’ve done a couple of posts lately on Christian sexual ethics. I’ve argued that conservatives overemphasise them and draw the wrong conclusions from the bible; while liberals unduly neglect them. So I thought I would be remiss not to mention what Pope Francis has said recently on the subject.

His holiness has given a long and widely reported interview with a Jesuit magazine. I’ve waded through all 12,000 words of the English translation provided by an American Catholic magazine. Much of it seems rather esoteric to someone not initiated into the history of Jesuit order. However, amongst the clerical arcana are some profound passages.

What struck me is not that he has come up a convincing standard for sexual morality. He explains that the “teaching of the church…is clear and I am a son of the church”, which means sticking with the flawed doctrine that abortion, homosexuality and contraception are sins.  The interesting part comes when he talks about how to apply these rules.

The question of judgement is a difficult one for Christians. Doing so offends injunctions to humility by implying we are pure enough to call out others. Not doing it, leaves us unable to speak about morality. Pope Francis seems to have an instructive attitude to how to treat those on who it is necessary to pass judgement on.

For a start, he emphasises that morality has many facets. He warns against allowing the core message of salvation to be obscured by “the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently” and that the Church does not need to talk about sexual morality “all the time.” Recognising that there are many parts to morality allows Francis to conclude that someone falling short in one aspect does not make them a total moral failure – hence he can acknowledge the existence of gay people of ‘good will…in search of God.”

Most significantly, however, is Francis’ affirmation of the humanity of gay people:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.

This is a timely reminder to all Christians of that central message of salvation. That someone sins does not mean god stops loving them nor does it give any human the right to hate them.

I realise that for the many people who’ve been damaged by the Catholic Church’s retrograde teachings on sex and relationships, the Pope acknowledging that they are human will seem like a rather puny gesture. I think that’s their right and that they are probably right to see it that way. However, for me while I disagree with what Francis thinks is wrong, I find his attitude to those he thinks have done wrong to be worthy of praise. I would be a better person if I could adopt it.


4 thoughts on “The Pope’s lessons in how to judge people

  1. I think you’re creating more difficulty around the issue of judgement than there is. I don’t think that we can ever judge anyone; that’s God’s prerogative. What we can say is “I think that some people are hurt when you do this”, while bearing in mind that we are not in the same situation as anyone else, and don’t know what we would do if we were. We can protest and speak out in order to stand with the victims, not condemn the offenders.

    “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a slogan which sounds good in principle, but giving ourselves licence to “hate the sin” means taking a very unsympathetic approach to whatever motivations drove that person to take that action.

    It’s practically necessary for us to have law and courts – however, I’m uncomfortable in saying that human law or human courts have the right to pass judgement on anyone. The purpose of the criminal justice system is to try and prevent crime through deterrence, prevention and rehabilitation; as humans under God’s law and God’s justice, we don’t have the right to impose our view of “justice” through punishment.

      • Maybe not – but I think there are two key points:
        a) keeping the focus on the oppressed person, not the oppressor
        b) an awareness that people don’t act in isolation – every action is preceded by a lifetime of experiences that we don’t know about

        You mentioned in a previous post that your interpretation of “judge not, lest ye be judged” is that we can’t judge people unless we live up to the standards that we’re demanding of others. But I don’t think that’s quite right: I do plenty of things that I wouldn’t want to condone (in particular, thinking and saying uncharitable things). And moreover, as each person’s lived experience is different, it’s impossible to know what the standards that we might be demanding of other people actually entail. I simply don’t know what I’d do if I were in the same situation as anyone else – so I can’t judge anyone else’s actions.

        (Although, as you know, I don’t live up to this).

  2. Just read that through in contrast with the previous comment – it won’t let me edit, but actually I’ve just reiterated what I said before without really addressing your point. Sorry.

    I think that there is a difference. “What you did was wrong” sounds very different to “X was hurt by what you did”, and I think it’s to do with what I said above (twice), although I’m not sure if I could elucidate it any further.

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