Who Am I to Judge?

We have all become quite familiar with those words of Pope Francis, quoted two years ago during an interview on his return flight from World Youth Day in Brazil: “Who am I to judge?”1 They have become a sort of slogan against so-called “homophobes,” a term freely applied to anyone who maintains the immorality of sexual acts between gay people. Perhaps less familiar are the words that form the rest of the Pope’s sentence in reference to gay people, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” What does it mean to accept the Lord and have goodwill? Those words are almost never included in any citation, and when they are, it seems, little thought is given to what they truly mean. They need to be examined in order to pull the Pope’s words back from the free-wheeling sound bite they have become.

Of itself, “goodwill” might be used in any number of ways. It is helpful to divide those uses into three “levels” of understanding, and, in fact, being of goodwill. They are: (1) according to the common usage, (2) according to a philosophical analysis, and (3) according to a theological one. First, according to the common usage, goodwill can mean kind feelings toward another person, wishing another person well, or working for the good of another. Those ideas don’t exhaust the possibilities of goodwill, but they are most certainly included. Second, according to a philosophical analysis of goodwill, we can turn to St. Thomas Aquinas for guidance. He understands the will as the rational appetite. It is the power of a person to tend toward good, and away from evil, as he or she recognizes good and evil. By this definition, a person of goodwill is one who has recognized the good, and moved toward it. This goes beyond the common usage of goodwill, in that it truly requires an act of discernment to find out what is good—objectively, apart from the one choosing it—and then making the choice for it. The common understanding could include this, or just as easily maintain that whatever is chosen is good, simply for having been chosen. Finally, there is the theological understanding of goodwill. This kind of goodness is wholly dependent on sanctifying grace, which unites a person to God by a gift from him. It enables the exercise of charity, that virtue by which we love God above all things, and love all things for God’s sake. Love is essentially an act of the will, and so, according to this understanding, a person of goodwill is one who acts with charity.

Taken together, those words of Pope Francis, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill,” indicate more than a mere goodness, as in the first “level,” and even go beyond that of the second. He is talking specifically about a goodness that comes from union with God, from God’s life within the individual. This context gives a great deal of clarity to the words, “Who am I to judge?” They cannot be an indulgence to all but those actions done out of malice toward another person. They are, instead, a call to each individual who has heard the voice of Jesus to do all for love of him, and they are a sign of forgiveness for those who have sinned, and yet, seek to reclaim his love.

This is exactly the call the Church extends to each person of goodwill. In the Introduction to the Rite of Penance, confirmed by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1975, these instructions are given after the priest bids the penitent to go in peace: “The penitent continues the conversion thus begun, and expresses it by a life renewed according to the Gospel, and more and more steeped in the love of God.”2 Having been placed in relationship with God, the individual must continue turning toward him, and growing in his love. To be of goodwill requires something ongoing of the person.

It is, perhaps, not widely recognized that sacramental absolution has effects beyond the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness is undoubtedly first, but there is also given the grace to avoid sin in the future. St. Francis de Sales wrote, “By confession you, not only receive absolution from sins you confess, but likewise, strength to avoid them, light to discern them well, and grace to repair all the damage you may have sustained by them.”3 This fact is true for the whole spectrum of sins in which human beings might indulge. We are never doomed to repeat them again, but promised the possibility of staying united to God by the help of his grace.

God will certainly give us his help, but we must choose to act on it. An essential part of our goodwill is the resolution not to commit sin again. Goodwill, and the intention to continue committing a particular sin in the future, are incompatible. It is impossible to be of goodwill, in the sense of loving God above all, and continue to choose sin. The very act of setting oneself toward sin, choosing it as though it were a good, is the definition of “bad will.” It may be the case that we continue to desire a certain sin—having become habituated to it and wanting to satisfy that desire—but such an inclination is very different from the actual intention to commit the sin again.

Seen through this lens, the Holy Father’s words—“If they accept the Lord, and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?”—say nothing of homosexuality, in particular. They might equally have been said in regard to any sin we become inclined toward, and need God’s help to avoid committing. If one has already repented, and set himself or herself toward choosing what is good in the future, “who am I to judge?” Who could condemn such a person, when this is precisely what Christ calls each of us to do?

And yet these words—both in their original context and in their quite frequent quotation—are in reference to gay people, and so the question must be asked, can a gay person be of goodwill? The answer is unequivocally “yes” for no person is beyond God’s saving grace. Any person who has sinned—which is to say, all people—are capable of goodwill. What, then, does it look like for a gay person—specifically in regard to his or her sexuality—to have goodwill?

In its 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote, in answer to its own question, “What then are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord?”:

Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross. … It is easily misunderstood, however, if it is merely seen as a pointless effort at self-denial. The Cross is a denial of self, but in service to the will of God himself, who makes life come from death and empowers those who trust in him to practice virtue in place of vice. …(They) are called, as all of us are, to a chaste life. As they dedicate their lives to understanding the nature of God’s personal call to them, they will be able to celebrate the sacrament of penance more faithfully, and receive the Lord’s grace, so freely offered there, in order to convert their lives more fully to his Way.4

For a gay person, goodwill means striving to live chastely, not engaging in sexual activity at all, and repenting if one does give in to temptation. Some will call such a statement extreme and unrealistic. Pressure is mounting from outside the Church, and from within, to repudiate that position and “evolve” with the rest of society. As one commentator recently put it, the widespread acceptance of sexual relations between gay people is a “painful reminder of how extreme the Catholic Church appears today in its continued discrimination against gays.”5 A call to repentance, instead of capitulation, is now seen as an act of unjust discrimination.

In truth, the call to repentance is central to the mission of the Church, and if anything might be called “unjust,” it would be silence from the Church when repentance is needed. The real point of contention is over sexual activity between gay people: does it constitute a sin requiring repentance, or not? That is a question beyond the scope of this article, but it is one to which Pope Francis’s answer is clear. In the same interview, when asked his Holiness’s position on same sex marriage, he responded quite simply that his is “The position of the Church. I am a son of the Church.” Whatever argument one might make for the good of homosexual relations, it can in no way rest on those fateful words, “Who am I to judge?”

  1. w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/july/documents/papafrancesco_20130728_gmg-conferenza-stampa.html. Accessed May 8, 2015.
  2. Rite of Penance. (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2010), no. 20.
  3. St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life. (Point Roberts, Washington: Eremitical Press, 2009), Book II, Chapter 19.
  4. vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19861001_homosexual-persons_en.html, Paragraph 12. Accessed May 8, 2015.
  5. cruxnow.com/faith/2015/05/06/anti-gay-bias-is-this-really-where-the-church-wants-to-be/. Accessed May 8, 2015.
Fr. Daniel Richards About Fr. Daniel Richards

Fr. Daniel Richards is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He is a 2013 graduate of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and is currently assigned as parochial vicar at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Gettysburg College.


  1. Avatar I hope and pray you are Correct says:

    A good article, and I sincerely hope that the author is correct. But it’s yet someone else telling me what the Holy Father really meant. Sadly, most who heard these words thought that they meant something else. Surely the Holy Father knows the controversy that his words have caused. Why doesn’t HE tell us what he really meant. That would clarify the matter once and for all.

    • I am reminded of Jesus telling his followers that they’d have no sign but the sign of Jonah when they asked Him to clarify who he was. My hunch is that the Holy Spirit has given us this Pope right now because it’s time to stop spoon feeding us. Throughout the 20th century we had excellent popes. From 1979-2013, we’ve had the tenants of our Faith spelled out for us repeatedly by JPII & B16. At some point, we have to stop whining, get beyond the headlines & stand on what we’ve been taught.

  2. Who is Monsignor Ricca? The oft-quoted words of Pope Francis were in answer to a specific and “delicate” question asked by the reporter, Ilze Scamparini: “I would like to ask your permission to pose a question that’s a bit delicate. Also another image went around the world, which was that of Monsignor Ricca and of the news of his private life. I would like to know, Holiness, what do you intend to do about this question? How will this question be confronted and how does Your Holiness intend to confront the question of the gay lobby?” If we read the whole answer, we see that a lot of “judgment” was exercised, and it had to do with following “due process” in a legal process. A “preliminary investigation” was made, as required by canon law, and it evidently failed to show evidence of a provable crime committed by the Italian monsignor. There was also a distinction between sins and crimes. The context of the pope’s answer is often ignored.

  3. Avatar Jeff Thompson says:

    Judgement is for determination of guilt, and not to decide whether or not an act is sinful. Divine Law has already made clear what is and what is not sinful. No one, not even a Pope, is in a position to determine the degree of guilt for any sin; only God, who has full knowledge of all things can do that.

  4. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    …a 2013 graduate of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland
    I continue to be totally impressed with the young priests coming from our Seminaries. The Holy Spirit is alive and well in our midst. With men like this we have hope for the future of the Church.