Well, I’m not following any particular plan with this Wednesday series on the ‘Gnarly Questions’, the genuinely difficult matters of Catholic theology or faith practice that puzzle or confound many. Like so much else of this blog, it’s mainly a matter of what I’m thinking about when I wake up in the morning, or something I read this week or whatever.
That being said, let’s talk this time about a word that is one of the most red flag words around, a word guaranteed to get people’s hackles up and knives out, one way or the other. Let’s talk about judgment.
‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.’ (Matt 7: 1, Lk 6:37). These are the Lord’s own words, and we ignore them at our peril. To be a Christian is to be non-judgmental—let’s get that straight. ‘For with the judgment you make, you will be judged’ (Matt 7:2) – the consequences are grave if we do not come to grips with this call and live it out faithfully.
What does it mean, anyhow? The problem is that many people today abuse that one saying of the Lord by taking it out of its proper context, which is the whole of Scripture. And from that, they interpret ‘do not judge’ as meaning that we cannot advance any sort of moral norm, make any kind of claim as to the good and evil of specific human acts. The whole thing collapses into a sort of fuzzy relativism in which nobody can ever say to anyone else ‘You ought not do that.’
Well, that is silly. The moral law has been given to us as a gift to make our lives beautiful, not as a curse to burden and afflict us. Certain actions are morally wrong simply because, and only because, they harm us, harm particularly the one who does them. A specific action is morally good because it helps the one doing it become more the person he or she is created to become.
It is incoherent to say that, say, ‘murdering another human being is wrong’, and then, beholding Stanley bathed in the blood of Jim, not be able to say ‘Stanley has done a wrong thing.’ That is not being non-judgmental; that is being an idiot. Nor is it being non-judgmental to refuse on principle to go to Stanley and say ‘Yo, Stan, you have done a wrong thing there, killing Jim!’ That is not being non-judgmental; that is being a coward.
So what is non-judgment? It is the blank refusal to say that another person is in a state of sin. People do wrong things all the time, objectively manifestly wrong things. But whether they have actually sinned or not depends on a host of factors that are utterly unknown to us.
For an action to be a mortal sin, it has to be grave matter (something serious, Ten Commandment stuff). The person also has to have full knowledge that what they are doing is wrong. They have to be doing it freely and without compulsion, with deliberate intent (cf Catechism 1857). These latter two conditions are known only to God, since they pertain to the interiority of the person.
It is not a judgmental thing to say to a person, “You know, I really don’t think you should be doing that. Did you know that was against the moral law? It is, you know!” That is a work of mercy, actually, provided it is done with prudence and charity. It is a judgmental thing to say to someone, “You are a sinner – you’re going to go to Hell if you don’t cut that out right now.”
Mind you, most of us, in our judgmentalism, don’t actually say those things out loud. The late Fred Phelps and his so-called ‘church’ (of ‘God Hates Fags’ notoriety) really are extreme outliers. But for many Christians it is more a matter of the up-turned nose, the pursed lips, the raised eyebrow, the dirty look, the cold demeanour, the sneer. And these things, because they cannot be directly countered or corrected, because they are matters of non-verbal and unspoken judgments, can be much more damaging in the end.
We have to pray for, and choose, really choose, to have a compassionate heart and a friendly disposition towards all men and women—the ones who always get it right and do everything they’re supposed to do (whoever those happy few may be), and the ones who struggle and fall down and are lost in any number of immoral paths and bad choices.
We don’t know how God sees them, although we do know He loves them enough to die for them. Perhaps we could love them enough to stifle our criticisms and carping and unkindness?
There is much more to say about this—so often we jump to conclusions about situations, make assumptions about what a person is doing and what is in their hearts, and our assumptions are quite often not charitable and are astonishingly often wildly inaccurate.
Judgment belongs to God. We are indeed to know what is right and what is wrong—why on earth would God want us to be ignorant of such vital matters? But to assess whether another person is in the grace of God or is cut off from Him—this is simply not our business and we indulge in such matters to our own immortal peril, as the Lord Himself took pains to tell us.
Do not judge, lest you be judged.