Pope Francis in March 2013

On his way back from Brazil, Pope Francis raised eyebrows, first by giving an interview to the press corps on the plane (very unusual), then by allowing the interview to go on for an hour and 20 minutes while he spoke candidly (extremely unusual for a pope).

But what got the most attention was his comment about homosexuals: “Who am I to judge?” he said.

A lot of conservative Catholics were likely thinking, “You’re the pope, that’s who.” Popes have a history of judging, a very long history. So this pope was setting himself apart — alongside John XXIII — in a very small subset.

“Who am I to judge?” What a relief to hear those words coming from a pope. What a relief it is to say them — a testament to humility, the equivalent of “I don’t know enough.”

Andy Borowitz, the Onion-style political commentator for the New Yorker, put this nicely in perspective when he made up the following news item: “Scalia offers to help Pope judge gays.”

“Responding to Pope Francis’ suggestion that the Pope is not capable of judging gays,” Borowitz wrote, tongue totally in cheek, “Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia contacted the Vatican today to say that he would be ‘more than happy’ to help the Pontiff do so.”

A lot of us are more than happy to judge our fellow men and women for a range of real or imagined “sins.” For newspaper columnists, it’s an occupational hazard, so I’m as guilty as anyone. But over the years, I’ve probably been judged as often as I’ve judged, which has made me more circumspect about taking the plunge. Also, I’ve been wrong more times than I care to admit.

I suspect I’m not alone. We do our fair share of judging, egged on by the media. TV viewers are urged to vote someone off the island or dash someone’s hopes on American Idol. Reality TV is based on competition, and the more competitive we are, the more judgmental we get.

Mostly, our judgments are based on information that ranges from adequate to pathetically inadequate, though I confess that sounds judgmental. Very few people are in a position to judge something or someone with a wealth of information, but even then we shake our heads in disbelief at the outcome — as with the final verdict in the George Zimmerman and O.J. Simpson cases. We judge the judgments.

To some extent, living requires us to make judgments — or at least form opinions. Judging has become our default setting, silently if not always publicly. Some people are more judgmental than others, severe in their assessments. The quicker you are to judge, I’ve found, the less compassionate those judgments tend to be.

Take homosexuals, for instance. Jesus never said a word about them in the Bible. But he did say, very clearly, don’t judge lest ye too be judged. So that should have settled that, but the Old Testament says same-sexuality is an “abomination” in the eyes of God. Then again, the Old Testament makes some pretty severe judgments about other matters, such as diet, which most God-fearing Christians don’t follow, so their selectivity undermines the credibility of their judgments.

Is same-sex love an abomination in God’s eyes? Maybe, maybe not, but I always figured God has more important fish to fry than whether someone is loving the wrong gender. Sexual violence, sexual slavery and sexual exploitation among heterosexuals for instance. Much bigger problems, don’t you think?

But the Catholic Church has been making a big deal about it. They investigated all the American nuns and censured them for spending too much time and effort on social justice and not nearly enough condemning abortion and homosexuality. God, they implied, wants the good sisters to rearrange their priorities. But God isn’t the problem. A faulty conception of God is the problem.

The God the judgers believe in insults God.

Fortunately, Pope Francis doesn’t share their notion of a severe, judgmental deity. The God Francis believes in is a merciful God. In fact, as John Allen of National Catholic Reporter recently wrote, the one word that best characterizes the pontificate of Francis thus far is “mercy.”

This pope has to walk a fine line between a highly judgmental Church tradition and his refreshing emphasis on a God who forgives. In that same post-Brazil interview, Francis said John Paul II had closed the door on women’s ordination, but he didn’t say what he thinks about it. No one is holding his feet to the flames of inquiry just yet, and I’m glad. He deserves some maneuvering room. I’d rather hear the best from him than hold him accountable for the Church’s worst — for now at least.

“Who am I to judge?” represents the Catholic Church at its best. As a role model for millions, Pope Francis is setting an example.

Judgments come from the gut (or the knee). Opinions come from the head (informed, we hope, by the heart). We can never “get all the facts.” We’ll never even agree when a “fact” is a fact.

But I would hazard the following opinion, based on my experience: The more judgmental we are, the more unhappy; and the quicker we are to judge, the more unfair.

If mercy is the defining characteristic of the God this pope believes in, then who are we to be so judgmental?

At the very least we can give more benefits of the doubt.

We can strive to make the quality of our mercy less strained.

We can judge not, lest we too be judged.

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