The Use and Abuse of ‘Who Am I to Judge’?

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Last week the Washington Post seemed to have a sudden interest in the sacraments of the Catholic Church, devoting nearly 900 words to a story about a patient at a D.C. hospital who, according to the headline, was “refused last rites.” With the patient as the sole source, the Post describes how a Catholic chaplain there “stopped delivering a 63-year-old heart attack patient Communion prayers and last rites after the man said he was gay.”

We don’t know all the details of the exchange in the Washington hospital room. And we will only have one side of the story because the priest is not talking — and ought not to — with reporters. No doubt from crime stories over the decades, the Washington Post newsroom knows all about the “seal of the confessional,” and that pastoral discretion extends beyond the confession box.

From the patient’s rundown in an interview with the Washington Blade, which first reported on the incident:

“We started talking and I told him I was so happy with this new Pope because of his comments about the gays and his accepting the gays,” Plishka said. “And I mentioned that I was gay. I said it and then I asked him does that bother you? And he said, ‘Oh, no, that does not bother me,’” said Plishka.

“But then he would not proceed with administering the last rites or communion. He couldn’t do it.”

According to Plishka, Coelho, who brought a supply of holy water to his hospital room, never said in so many words that he was refusing to administer communion and last rites.

Asked what Coelho told him, Plishka said, “Well, I mean he stopped. He would not do it. By him not doing it I assumed he would not do it because why was he getting ready to do it and all of a sudden when I say I’m gay he stops?”

Plishka said Coelho gave no reason for not giving him the sacraments he requested but offered instead to pray with him.

“He said what he wanted to do,” said Plishka. “He wanted to pray. That’s what he wanted to do. He said well I could pray with you. And I just told him to get the [expletive deleted] out of here — excuse me. But that’s what I told him.”

A priest administers “last rites” — the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick — in persona Christi. It is a means for healing from Christ the Physician. It requires contrition and purpose of amendment, that is, a desire and willingness to get right with God, to seek His forgiveness for our sins. So anyone confessing to sexual sins of any nature would not stop a priest in his tracks. Heaven knows priests are hearing such wherever the confessional light is on.

From the Blade report, we know neither the interior disposition of the patient, nor the discernment of the priest in his pastoral care of the patient. What we do know is that we do not know. You can’t tell a story if you don’t actually have it. To continue would only seem to serve an agenda, portraying the Church as behind the times and lacking in compassion, hardening hearts to what the Church teaches about mercy, the meaning of our lives, and dignity of the human person.

The incomplete story the coverage of the incident presents obscures the love at the heart of the sacraments of the Catholic Church — opportunities for healing and grace. It does, at the same time, give us an opportunity to fact-check something that has taken on a life of its own: The pope’s “Who am I to judge.”

The context of Pope Francis’s comments on the way back to Rome after his first trip back to South America since being elected pope, have been largely lost. But you can read the context of the “Who am I to judge?” comment in the official English translation on the Vatican website:

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. Many times I think of Saint Peter. He committed one of the worst sins, that is he denied Christ, and even with this sin they made him Pope. We have to think a great deal about that. . . .

I believe that when you are dealing with such a person, you must distinguish between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of someone forming a lobby, because not all lobbies are good. This one is not good. If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in a beautiful way, saying . . . wait a moment, how does it say it . . . it says: “No one should marginalize these people for this, they must be integrated into society”. The problem is not having this tendency, no, we must be brothers and sisters to one another, and there is this one and there is that one.

The part where one asks for forgiveness is frequently left out when the line is quoted.

Marginalize no one. Love one another, as Christ told us.

As Pope Francis himself pointed out, his words are not a new Gospel he invented nor a new teaching he invented on a plane.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church writes with love for the person with same-sex attraction.

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These 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.

It continues:

Homosexual persons 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.

In Catholic teaching, everyone, as it happens, is called to chastity.

As the Catechism explains:

Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.

The Catechism continues:

2338 The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech.

2339 Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy. ”Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end.”

It’s a great blessing that people who have fallen away from the Church – women and men who are not in full Communion with the Church because of sin that is often the result of tremendous pain and suffering and cultural misery that pretends that in sexual license is true freedom – are beginning to have an increased realization that there is a Church door open for them. But that door is leading to reconciliation. To be in union with God is to follow his precepts. And we can’t demand priests administer the sacraments to us if we do not truly seek God’s mercy.

Divine mercy is a leading theme of Pope Francis’s papacy, a bond he shares with previous popes, as he makes clear this spring when he celebrates the canonization of Pope John Paul II who first declared the Sunday after Easter Divine Mercy Sunday. This Holy Father pleads with us with a fervent repetition to go to God for forgiveness, to never tire of doing so when we fall. But we have to want God’s inexhaustible merciful love for us, we have to go to Him knowing we are sinners in need of forgiveness.

That’s living in union with God for the Catholic. Anything less is counterfeit.