It’s a perennial question, but it has been especially thick in the air lately, since Pope Francis said in two separate interviews, “Who am I to judge?” about someone with a homosexual orientation. Coming from the Vicar of Christ on earth, the question elicited jubilation in some quarters and dismay in others.

The controversy came to mind twice the other day, thanks to two articles linked to by friends. One was a Witherspoon Institute essay by a man who years ago divorced his wife and came out as homosexual and then later began to reflect on his actions from a natural-law point of view: 

“Once I began thinking, reasoning and examining my life, an extraordinary thing happened: I couldn’t stop. For instance, at first, I was willing to own up to the fact that I had hurt our children through our divorce and concluded that I needed to repair that wrongdoing. But hadn’t a grave injustice also been inflicted on my wife? Against our families and friends who had always supported us?”

His reflections eventually led him back to his marriage and to the Church, but they had begun when he re-embraced the natural law he had previously abandoned:

“As I first stepped out of the closet in the 1990s, I made a conscious decision to ignore natural law. Once I made that choice, I could not stop. Untethered from natural law, I could not draw a line regarding my behavior, nor could I justify making any sort of judgment regarding the behaviors of others. Should I condemn lending my tacit approval to the prostitution of young men and women and reject viewing pornography? Why? Should gay couples invite a third man into their bed? Sure, why not? Should gay partners who declare themselves monogamous be okay with having casual sexual encounters with other men? Sure! Committed throuples? Why not? Public nudity, group sex, sex in public? Who was I to judge?”

This passage captures very well a common interpretation of the question “Who am I to judge?” It is taken to be an implicit rejection of natural law, an assertion of moral relativism. 

That the Pope means something different, though, should be clear from the fact that he has repeatedly and unambiguously affirmed the Church’s teaching on the immorality of homosexual acts. So what did he mean? And why would he say something so confusing? Was it just an unfortunate turn of phrase? — a prime example of the downside of a colloquial pope being too exposed to a hostile media?

I don’t think so. I think the Pope was deliberate. I think he asks the question of himself “out loud,” because he wants to lead the rest of us in asking it of ourselves, inwardly. Notice that the question isn’t, “Is there such a thing as objective right and wrong?” That question isn’t on the table for any believing Christian.

The question “Who am I to judge?” is of a different order altogether. It’s not about the objective moral law; it’s about subjectivity. It directs critical moral attention away from “outside” and “other” to “inside” and “self.”

Think for a minute about the story of the woman caught in adultery. Notice that Jesus doesn’t deny or minimize her wrongdoing. He doesn’t call into question the objective justice of the Mosaic Law, which prescribes her death by stoning. Rather, he asks the ones who are about to apply the law — to deal death — to pause and reflect on themselves and reflect on their own conditions before God.

And when they do, what happens? Do they conclude that the Law of Moses is outdated? Or that adultery is licit; that anything goes, as long as it’s between consulting adults? No. Rather, they realize at a new level that they, too, are sinners; that they, too, deserve death; that they, too, are only saved by relying on God’s mercy. And, having connected deeply with that prime moral fact of their subjectivity, they no longer want to throw stones. They no longer approach the woman as her judges and superiors, but as fellow sinners, likewise in need of help and grace.

The law hasn’t changed. What has changed is human hearts and (hence) the interpersonal atmosphere of the community — and (we can hope) the values that comprise the moral common good. To “lawfulness” and “righteousness” have been added a greater measure of “mercy” and “solidarity.” There is less condemnation and more care.

The fundamental shift that takes place in that story captures the larger shift in social mores that began with the advent of Christianity and has been ongoing since. The objective moral law remains what it was. What keeps changing — developing over time and under grace — is our understanding of what it means to live as persons made in the image and likeness of God, fallen, in need and called to love and communion. 

Here I need to anticipate an objection. When I say development, I do not mean it in the progressivist sense, as if whatever modern man thinks is ipso facto an improvement over what has come before — as if the more we abandon former norms, the more we’re advancing morally. That’s false and absurd. I agree with C.S. Lewis: If you’re on the wrong road, turning back is the most direct route forward. 

But I’m not speaking of “modern man” or society at large. I’m speaking of the Church, “the people of God,” the sensus fidelium. And there we do find development, in Cardinal John Henry Newman’s sense of that term. Why don’t modern-day popes call for crusades against jihadists? Why do they condemn as wrong things that used to be accepted as natural, like slavery and the subordination of women? Why, when they used to denounce heretics, do they now champion religious freedom? Have the doctrines changed?

No. Rather, our understanding of the practical exigencies of the immutable truths of our faith has developed organically through reflection on them and on human experience. Here is how Vatican II expresses the point with respect to religious freedom:

“The declaration of this Vatican Council on man’s right to religious freedom is based on the dignity of the person, the demands of which have become more fully known to human reason through centuries of experience” (Dignitatis Humanae, 9). 

The second article that brought the “judgment” controversy to mind was about inmates at a California prison who were given a writing assignment for a journalism class taught by Berkeley professor William Drummond: Imagine how and when you’ll die and then compose your own obituary. 

“I did it as a way to find out how these guys had reconciled their crimes,” Drummond said. “Were they able to take a critical look at what got them in trouble?”

The inmates, he recalled, were uncomfortable with the assignment. These were people who were best known for their worst decisions — stabbing a man to death, gunning down a bystander and robbing banks."

I got no further in the article before putting it down for a time, so arresting did I find that last sentence: “These were people who were best known for their worst decisions ...” I was instantly conscious of how much I don’t want to be known by my own worst acts and traits — of how terrible it is to define any human being that way. We understand this better as we become more mature in our religious lives, more conscious of our absolute dependence on divine help and more aware of how implicated we are in one another’s crimes and failings.

The more I listen to and learn from Pope Francis, the more convinced I become that this “moral-attention shift” is at the center of his pastoral agenda for the Church. Changing the moral law is no part of his aim; nor is it in his power. 

He is about changing hearts.

Katie van Schaijik and her husband, Jules, are co-founders of The Personalist Project.