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‘Who am I to judge? asks the pope; the question is rich with possibility

“Who am I to judge?” With these words Pope Francis rejected the impulse to condemn and proposed that the Catholic Church adopt a more generous attitude to those with whom it disagrees, one that recognizes the importance of conscience in determining both the nature and severity of sin.

Emphasizing a loving look at the sinner in conjunction with the behavior deemed sinful acknowledges the duality of sin itself. One cannot simply denounce sinners without trying to understand their intent, motivation, and capacity. That analysis can cut both ways, making an “offense” more or less severe.

For example, the institutional church committed a grievous sin by tolerating and covering up clerical child abuse. The motivation – a desire to avoid scandal – underscored the evil. To have considered it a mitigating factor was delusional.

Like crime, sin has an objective and subjective component. The law tends to emphasize the objective component – the act itself – while sometimes considering motivation mainly in imposing punishment. If anything, the subjective element is more important than the act in determining sinfulness. Catholic teaching is that one can sin without an overt act.

I know too many good people who in the eyes of the Church are living in sin – if one adopts a narrow definition of that condition. I also know enough “good” people who are not quite the paragons of virtue they may think they are.

Pope Francis asks: Who are we to impose our own judgment for God’s in determining who is a sinner and beyond redemption? Can we honestly substitute our own judgment for that of an infinite God? We can only have faith and hope that divine judgment is fused with love and mercy.
Is the God who commands us to love our neighbor (saint or sinner) as ourselves a harsh judge? Or, as the source of all that is good, would God not be more like the father of the “prodigal son,” prepared to pardon and forgive a penitent soul? I certainly hope so.

How easy it is to be caught up in the pettiness that surrounds us, to be diverted from what is important and meaningful to what is foolish. Daily we are served an intoxicating brew of intolerance, scorn, self-importance, self-indulgence, and ignorance. The clamor and clutter makes it difficult to function in a way that reflects fundamental, shared values.

The lowest common denominator calls the tune and we all dance. The accumulation of money, power, and adulation is what drives so many. Celebrity is the new sainthood in a culture that honors what’s trivial.
With a new emphasis on love, caring, sympathy, mercy, and understanding, we will honor those among us who practice the essential virtues so necessary to overcome the shallowness of contemporary life. Illumination need not be delayed until the deathbed when, stripped of illusions, one awaits the final confrontation. Is it the end or is it a gateway to hereafter?

Rather than write about the vagaries of human existence, I prefer to deal with loftier topics, to look beyond for larger meanings. The human condition is an ever-present source of wonder. I marvel at the goodness that I see and am distressed at our capacity for malevolence and indifference.

It all comes down to: “Love thy neighbor.” Most of us believe in that and understand that we are each other’s neighbor. It is putting those three simple yet powerful words into practice that is so difficult. How do we do it as we go about our lives, particularly when we are so much more inclined to love ourselves? The two impulses seem always to be in conflict. Perhaps not; for in loving others, we expand our capacity to be loved.

“Who am I to judge” is a beginning. Instead of condemnation and scorn, the question offers understanding, sympathy, and generosity, all basic components in love, the mother of all virtues.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.