It is interesting to note where Pope Francis made his recent comment about gay priests. He was on an airplane on his way back from his first foreign trip to Brazil, the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics speaking literally “on high.” And yet even there he was, as he has been from the start of his papacy, down to earth.

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis said, speaking in Italian during a session with reporters.

Is this a pope asking, “Who am I to judge?” Isn’t he the successor to a pope, Benedict XVI, who wrote that homosexuality was a “tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil”? Yes, he is. And what he said was consistent with church teaching. He wasn’t condoning gay sex. He was refusing to condemn gay people.

That is how Francis is winning respect from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, by not only what he does but also by what he declines to do. He chose not to live in the Apostolic Palace, preferring a simpler Vatican residence. He freely leaves the safety of the popemobile to touch people in the crowds who greet him. He does not take refuge in the history, tradition and the grandeur of his church. He meets and engages what the church really is, its people, without censure and with acceptance.

The scandals that have weakened the Catholic Church’s moral authority in the world – whether sex scandals involving priests or financial scandals involving the Vatican Bank – have been fed by insularity, secrecy and a rigid reliance on top-down authority. Francis in his manner and his words is breaking down all three.

So the world judges well this pope who asks, “Who am I to judge?”