“Who am I to judge?”  These may well be the most often quoted words of our Holy Father, Pope Francis.  They were delivered during an informal interview given by the Pope.  These words have very often been taken out of context and used to imply the Holy Father’s support for all sorts of things, most notably the gay lifestyle and even same-sex “marriage.”

But these words must be taken in their proper context, since the Pope was really speaking about God’s mercy and the call for all of us to allow a person, including ourselves, to convert and put his or her sins in the past.  These words of Pope Francis were delivered in response to a very specific question about a particular individual who was accused of inappropriate homosexual behavior in the past.  In a fuller context, the Pope said the following:

“I see that many times in the Church people search for ‘sins from youth’, for example, and then publish them. They are not crimes, right?  No, sins. But if a person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious sister, commits a sin and then converts, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives. When we confess our sins and we truly say, ‘I have sinned in this’, the Lord forgets, and so we have no right not to forget, because otherwise we would run the risk of the Lord not forgetting our sins. That is a danger. This is important: a theology of sin…If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?... The problem is not having this tendency, no, we must be brothers and sisters to one another…”

I have not included the full quote in the interest of space, but if the reader is interested, the full quote can be found on the Vatican website.  The point is that, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, if a person has a homosexual inclination, that is not itself a sin.  In fact, the person must be treated with dignity as a child of God.  They are to be accepted and treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity. (See the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”, # 2358)

On the other If a person with same sex attractions engages in homosexual acts, these acts are intrinsically and gravely disordered, and objectively constitute grave sin.  (CCC, #2357).  But the Pope emphasizes that our God is a God of mercy and forgiveness.  If someone sins in this regard, coverts, confesses his or her sins, they are forgiven and the Lord forgets their sins.  So should we forgive and forget.  Hence, “who am I to judge?”

Understood in its proper context, Pope Francis simply repeats in a very striking way what the Church has taught with regard to persons who experience deep-seated same sex attraction.  He was really not breaking new ground, and was certainly not advocating support for same sex “marriage”, as some have tried to assert.  Elsewhere Pope Francis has spoken very clearly and forcefully in support of the true understanding of marriage as being between one man and one woman.  From his general audience of April 2, 2014:

"At the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, at the culmination of the creation account it says: ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.... Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Gen 1:27; 2:24). The image of God is the married couple: the man and the woman; not only the man, not only the woman, but both of them together. This is the image of God: love, God’s covenant with us is represented in that covenant between man and woman. And this is very beautiful! We are created in order to love, as a reflection of God and his love. And in the marital union man and woman fulfil this vocation through their mutual reciprocity and their full and definitive communion of life."

This beautifully encapsulates what we have been learning in this series of columns on marriage.  Marriage is, by its very nature, a reflection of God’s love in a unique and powerful way.  Only a man and a woman, with their mutual reciprocity and the differentiation and complementarity of the sexes, can image God’s love in this way.  This is how God made human beings, and we are bound to the law of nature he has inscribed in the soul and the body of man and woman.

Homosexual acts, even within so-called same sex “marriage”, cannot image and reflect this.  Such acts “are contrary to the natural law.  They close the sexual act to the gift of life.  They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.  Under no circumstances can they be approved.”  (CCC, #2357)

This is why, no matter what a human court may decide, marriage cannot exist between two persons of the same sex.  Marriage is, by its very nature, ordered to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.  This two-fold purpose of marriage is powerfully experienced and shown forth in the sexual union of a man and a woman joined in the covenant bond of marriage.

I close this column with these final words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:  “[Homosexual] persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.  [They] are called to chastity.  By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”  (CCC, #2358-2359)  Let us accept, love and support our brothers and sisters who carry this cross and do everything we can to help them find and experience the goodness and mercy of our loving God.