Pope Francis was in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate World Youth Day. (Mario Tama/GETTY IMAGES)
August 2, 2013

James Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large at America magazine and author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.” He is at work on a book about Jesus. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesMartinSJ

I found it amusing that the biggest news from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro was not that Pope Francis attracted 3.7 million people to his Sunday Mass on Copacabana Beach (inevitably nicknamed “Popacabana” for the week). Nor was it the pope’s dramatic speech before an enthusiastic crowd in Rio’s Varginha slum, where he affirmed the Catholic Church’s stance on combating poverty, deploying terms like “social justice,” “economic inequalities” and “solidarity.” Nor was it even when his motorcade took a wrong turn and ended up on a crowded street, with the papal car suddenly swamped by well-wishers.

No, the worldwide headline-grabber was the pope’s off-the-cuff comment during what one reporter friend told me was an “insane” (in the best possible way) news conference on the flight back to Rome. Despite some turbulence, Pope Francis expertly fielded questions for 82 minutes. And in response to a question about a supposed “gay lobby” in the church, he answered:

“There is so much being written about the gay lobby. I have yet to meet anyone who introduces himself at the Vatican with a ‘gay card.’ . . . If a gay person is searching for God with goodwill, who am I to judge them?”

The pope also said, “The Catechism of the church expresses this beautifully . . .” And here he paused to ask his press spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, for the right word. “They should not be marginalized.”

The pope’s comments were noteworthy not only because he spoke about gays and lesbians in a way not traditionally done by most church leaders, but because he emphasized a Gospel teaching that may become the touchstone of his papacy: mercy.

Specifically, here’s how the pope’s words caused some turbulence in the church.

First, throughout the exchange on the plane, Pope Francis, speaking in fluent Italian, used the English word “gay.” Previous popes and the majority of church leaders have been more likely to use words like “homosexual,” “homosexually oriented” and even “persons suffering from same-sex attraction.” I cannot remember a pope ever using the term preferred by much of the world’s gay community.

Second, the pope’s response to a question concerning gay priests was not along the lines that some might have expected, especially given a Vatican document issued in 2005 that barred men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from the priesthood. Rather than saying, “There can be no gay priests,” the pope declined to judge them. He also emphasized that it was lobbies — “any type of lobby, business lobbies, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies” — that were cattivo (evil).

Third, the pope moved rather quickly from a question about a “gay lobby” in the Vatican to a comment about gay people in general. That is, he did not say, “If a gay priest is searching for God,” but “If a gay person is searching for God.” Then his remarkably compassionate comment: “Who am I to judge them?”

Fourth, he did not use words from the Catechism that many gays and lesbian Catholics say frustrate them, like “intrinsically disordered.” Nor, after saying that gays should not be “marginalized,” did he warn against homosexual activity, as might be expected.

Finally, the pope’s tone was eminently pastoral. When you watch the video of his remarks, you hear the voice of a kind pastor. Several of my gay and lesbian friends say the video moved them to tears.

So there is something new. And for those who might think that this may be more style than substance, I would say that in the church, style often proves substantial.

But there is also something old. Pope Francis has not changed church teaching on homosexual activity. (Nor would you expect him to alter church doctrine during an in-flight news conference.) Instead, he turned to a portion of the old teaching that often goes overlooked: The Catechism says that gays and lesbians are to be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

Even older is the unwillingness to judge. A few minutes after the pope’s news conference was posted online, several reporters called to ask if I was surprised. One reporter speculated, “Maybe the pope even had a copy of the Gospels with him.” (“Yes,” I said, “I am sure he does.”) The passage the reporter was speaking of is from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Jesus uses hyperbole to make sure his listeners understand, saying that you must take the “log” out of your own eye before you can take the “speck” (another translation of the Greek “karphos” is “splinter”) from another person’s eye.

In other words, if you want to judge someone, judge yourself. And just to be clear, Jesus adds: “You hypocrite!”

Yes, Pope Francis knows the Gospels. And he knows this line well. The pope also knows that Jesus’s comment does not mean any of us will escape judgment. The Gospels are greatly concerned with judging moral activity, with both John the Baptist and Jesus offering vivid images of the Last Judgment (the separation of the sheep from the goats, the unquenchable fire, the weeping and gnashing of teeth). God’s judgment of our actions means that God is concerned about what we do. A God who doesn’t judge is a God who doesn’t care.

But in the Gospels, it is God (or Jesus) who does the judging, not us. Jesus counsels his disciples not to judge but rather to show mercy. Indeed, Jesus not only counsels this, he demonstrates it by consistently approaching public “sinners” with an offer of forgiveness rather than condemnation. In the story of the “woman caught in adultery,” in the Gospel of John, Jesus challenges those in the crowd to “throw a stone at her” if they believe themselves to be without sin.

After no stones are thrown, Jesus asks the woman who has condemned her.

“No one, sir,” she says.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” says Jesus. “Go on your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

One message to the crowd is: Do not sin yourselves. But there is another message as well: Leave the judging of others to me. As for you, have mercy.

So for those expecting a wholesale condemnation of gays and lesbians, Pope Francis pointed them to mercy — not changing church doctrine on homosexual activity, but highlighting church teachings on how our brothers and sisters deserve respect, compassion and sensitivity. And in a largely unnoticed comment responding to a question about divorced and remarried Catholics, another group that often feels marginalized, the pope said, “I believe this is a time of mercy.”

The theme is already a hallmark of Francis’s pontificate. Only a few days after he was elected pope, in his first Sunday Angelus message, he said, “Mercy is the Lord’s most powerful message.” I don’t know how much clearer you can get.

So, aboard a bumpy flight after a grueling trip, Pope Francis instinctively moved to his default: mercy.

That was Jesus’s default. It should be ours, too.

Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.