The media were shocked when on the plane from Brazil back to Rome Pope Francis was asked about homosexuality and responded “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Had the media covering the Holy Father known their scriptures, particularly St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, they would have not been surprised, because Pope Francis is following the prescription against judging laid out by Paul.
In Romans 1:18 St. Paul writes “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” He specifically mentions homosexual temptations, tempting his readers to smug self-righteous self-justification, for how many readers of this section focus on sexual temptations and ignore the other sins catalogued by Paul: greed, envy, strife, deceit, malice, gossiping, slandering, boasting.
But in the first verse of the next chapter St. Paul challenges his readers to look inward: “Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.” Who of us can say that we have never committed any of these lesser included offences?
Why does the Lord tell us not to judge? A judge hears the evidence, renders the verdict, and passes the sentence. Only God can justly judge the individual soul, because only he knows all the circumstances and all the inner decisions a person has made. While we are called to know the law, unless we are legally appointed to be judges, we must refrain from passing judgment.
How easy it is to feel self-righteous when one doesn’t engage in certain sexual sins, not because we have heroically resisted temptation, because we have never been tempted in these areas.
I have spent 20 years reading the stories of persons with same-sex attraction and been saddened by the suffering they have endured. Pope Francis undoubtedly has a far deeper insight into such persons for he has heard thousands of confessions. He knows that sin is never simple.
I don’t know the story of every person who falls into sexual temptations. Perhaps some have freely embraced evil, I cannot say, but I think it is highly likely that many have been deeply wounded by childhood experiences. Based on the stories I have read I am not surprised that the sexually abused child becomes involved in prostitution, promiscuity, and pornography; that the boy whose caregiver dressed him in girls clothing is confused about his sexual identity: that the boy whose mother demeans his masculinity or the girl whose father ridicules everything feminine imitates the other sex; or that the child deprived of love from the same-sex parent interprets that deep unmet need as sexual attraction.
Pope Francis calls us to descend into “people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost” and to proclaim God’s saving love. How do we do that? Certainly not by projecting a façade of moral perfection, but by sharing our struggles, by loving those who struggle and those who have given up struggling against same-sex attractions and embraced an alternative life style, by praying for them.
I know that when I write on this subject I am likely to be attacked from both sides. Those who self-identify as gay, lesbian, or transgendered know they have suffered, but believe that if only the world — and particularly the Catholic Church — accepted same-sex attraction as normal for some people and changed the definition of marriage, they would be fine. They insist they don’t need healing, that they don’t need our prayers, but we must pray anyway.
It is harder to respond to those who see Pope Francis’s decision not to judge as being easy on sin – letting them get away with it – surrendering to the world, but they are wrong. This is the great and glorious paradox of Christianity. We see it over and over again in the teachings of Jesus, the reconciliation of mercy and justice. God’s mercy can be freely given because justice has been paid for on the cross. Each of us is a sinner in need of forgiveness and therefore must stand beside other sinners.
There are those who say this is too difficult, that it is impossible to reconcile clarity on the law and charity toward the person, that we must choose one or the other. But that is exactly what we must not do. Instead we must trust in grace, for it is only by God’s grace can the words of the psalmist be fulfilled: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed.”