Pope Francis’ most celebrated and most misunderstood remark certainly is his in-flight comment on homosexual persons while returning from Brazil. The Pope famously observed, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” His Holiness’ final words are well recalled, “Who am I to judge?” The Roman Catholic governor and the Roman Catholic attorney general of Illinois both cited these final words when signing into law the recognition of so-called same-sex marriage in the state of Illinois. The Advocate, the nation’s oldest homosexual publication, happily reported, “The brevity of that statement and the outsized attention it got immediately are evidence of the pope’s sway. His posing a simple question with very Christian roots, when uttered in this context by this man, “Who am I to judge?” became a signal to Catholics and the world that the new pope is not like the old pope.” Again, those final words are highlighted and the pope’s fuller context ignored.
The secular world is right and justified in seeing in Pope Francis a kind and sympathetic man. Pope Francis has written elsewhere that the Gospel will not be spread by dogmas and doctrines but by the attitude of the evangelist. His Holiness has certainly gone out of his way to project a caring and concerned attitude. Nonetheless, believers and the news media alike must keep in mind the full text of the Holy Father’s words. If a perplexed person “seeks God and has good will,” only then is the pope willing to delay judgment on that person’s efforts. People face all kinds of moral challenges — sexual preference, fiscal responsibilities, business integrity, addictive inclinations, religious commitment, marital fidelity. If such people (which are all of us) seek God and have good will, then indeed, who are we to judge? The danger is that some people will accept their impropriety as normative and will not seek God and will not display good will, that is, a will open to change. Clearly, the pontiff was not ignoring evil, but rather commending those who are striving to know God’s Will and incorporate God’s plan into their lives.
The encounter between Jesus Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well, this coming Sunday’s lengthy Gospel passage, is the perfect Scriptural anticipation of everything that Pope Francis has been striving to project during these short month’s since his election to the See of Peter. Jesus certainly projects a compassionate and sympathetic attitude. Christ’s casual conversation with a foreigner and a woman was just as eyebrow raising in his day as a Pope commenting on gay orientation in our day. Still, Jesus clearly recognizes the irregularity of the woman’s lifestyle: “For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Note that Jesus does not add, “Who am I to judge?” Rather, he continues to dialogue with the woman leading her to a consideration of an authentic relationship with God: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.” Christ urges her to have good will and seek God, not through her dissolute lifestyle but through true worship. Jesus warmly, but firmly led the woman to what later generations would recognize as “a firm purpose of amendment.”
In the end, it is personal faith in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior that convinces the woman to change her life. The woman hastily rushes off to enlighten her fellow Samaritans: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?” In her heart, the woman knows that Jesus is indeed the Christ and her own perspective is radically changed by their encounter. This is what is missing by the world’s truncated appreciation of the Holy Father’s famous utterance. A person with whatever problems life might present can find an enlightened path and lasting fulfillment only through Christ, only as one who “seeks God and has good will.”
The conversational style of Jesus leads the women from an objective discussion of water, wells, and buckets to a subjective dialogue about relationships, lifestyles, ancestry and worship. Jesus has the courage to speak to the woman’s heart rather than just to her head. She is touched by Jesus’ honesty and frankness and responds to him warmly. No doubt, Pope Francis is hoping that today’s world will be touched by his honesty and frankness and respond to him with equal warmth. Of course the world will have to ponder all his words if that is ever to occur.