WASHINGTON With five simple words, Pope Francis stopped us in our self-regarding, self-important tracks.
"Who am I to judge?" Francis asked, when queried about gay priests. "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
Um, the pope? The infallible one?
To be clear, on the issue of homosexuality, the new pope's stance is more recasting than revelation. The difference between Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, involves their language about supposed sinners, not their shared conviction that the behavior is a sin.
Benedict issued a document describing homosexuality as "a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil" and an "objective disorder," adding, for good measure, that men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" should not enter the priesthood. He didn't have a problem with judging.
But Francis seems determined to take the pontiff out of the pontificating business. He carried his own bag to Brazil, and thought it was no big deal. "It's normal to carry a bag," he said. "I'm a bit surprised that the image of the bag made its way around the world. Anyway, it wasn't the suitcase with the codes for the nuclear bomb."
Having begun his first international trip by announcing he did not do interviews, he ended with an hour-and-20-minute midair news conference that would have been remarkable for a politician, no less a pope.
Francis announced, disappointingly, that the no-girls-allowed sign would remain on the priestly clubhouse - Pope John Paul II, he said, had definitively stated "that door is closed" - but softened that stance with more inclusive language.
"It is not enough to have altar girls, women readers, or women as the president of Caritas," he said, referring to the Catholic charity. "The role of women doesn't end just with being a mother and with housework ... we don't yet have a truly deep theology of women in the church."
This was the papal version of the Straight Talk Express - and about as effective, even seductive, for the reporters on board as was John McCain's openness on his campaign bus. Benedict required questions in writing, in advance, and his advisers selected which ones he would deign to answer. Francis thanked a reporter for an impertinent question about the Vatican's gay lobby.
But the lasting phrase from his news conference, one with resonance to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, will no doubt be, "Who am I to judge?" This is not a common question in the modern age. We live in an American Idol culture in which judging is celebrated and judges are celebrities. The harsher, even crueler, the judging, the higher the judge's profile. "So You Think You Can Dance?" "You're Fired!" "Chopped."
The audience is riveted by the buildup to the moment of judgment, by the prospect that those being judged will lash out or, better yet, dissolve in tears. We sit at home, simultaneously playing judge ourselves and feeling relief that we are not among the judged.
Yes, we as a society are less inclined to moral judgments, and that is, for the most part, a happy development. What once was a source of shame - unwed motherhood, for example - is now, if not a point of pride, at least a marker of normalcy. Check out that celebrity with her baby bump.
But if we are less willing to make moral pronouncements, we seem ever more willing to judge others for just about everything else, and to revel in the certitude of our judgments. You be the judge.
This may seem a strange argument, coming as it does from someone who gets paid to pronounce judgments. In my line of work, hubris is a job requirement; we judge presidents and politicians, justices and juries, never having worn their shoes. The more stiletto-sharp the judgment, the higher the number of online page views, the greater the deluge of television invitations. There is no profit in mealy-mouthed uncertainty.
Francis' admonition about humility called to mind Justice Robert Jackson's famous quote about the Supreme Court, in the 1953 case of Brown v. Allen, "We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final."
Most of us are neither justices nor popes, with infallibility conferred by the Constitution or by an even higher authority. But the humility of the supposedly infallible is a valuable lesson to the merer mortals among us. "Who am I to judge" is always a good place to begin.
Ruth Marcus' email address is ruthmarcus@washpost .com.