Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIX, No. 1
Yes! For Christ's sake -- Go ahead and judge!
by Julianne Loesch Wiley
There’s a certain subset of our fellow citizens — you might run into them on the internet, or in the pew next to you — who only seem to know two words from the whole New Testament: “Judge not.” And if they can quote five words from Pope Francis, they would be — you guessed it — “Who am I to judge?”
Yet, letting Scripture comment on Scripture, we ought to also notice that we are commanded to judge. In fact, Jesus says in John 7:24, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.”
Justice and judgment are the foundation of His throne.
Saint Paul is quite insistent on this: (I Cor 6:2-3): “Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!”
The Prophets of Israel constantly ask for the power to “judge justly” and to “render sound judgment.” There is a sense that if we fail in our duty to judge rightly, we are blaspheming the holiness of the Almighty. Woe to those who undermine the foundation of His throne!
Keep in mind that the Spiritual Works of Mercy — which are not optional — carry an obligation to judge: you can’t “admonish sinners,” unless you can make a confident judgment about “What is sin?” And making that judgment is an Act of Mercy! So we must make distinctions between what we must judge, what we may judge, and what we must never judge.
You can only judge what you objectively know. And since, as Catholics, we are convinced that the moral law — divine and natural law — never changes, therefore, guided by the Church, we can make sure determinations on moral matters. We can most certainly judge:
1. Ideas/ideologies as good or bad;
2. Words (writing /messages) as true or false;
3. Actions as right or wrong.
This does not mean that our Moral Judge-o-Scope has to be always set on high volume. You don’t have to provide the TV news with a ceaseless popcorn popper of responses: “True! Bad! False! Wicked! Right on! Spot on! Way off! Good! Wrong! Lies-lies-lies!”
It does mean that, for ourselves, we must morally evaluate everything: yes, every thought, word, and deed. And we must make those judgments for anyone for whom we are responsible, as well.
To varying degrees, parents are responsible for their children, teachers for their students, employers for employees, officers for subordinates. Anyone with a supervisory role must make sure that those under his or her control or command must do good and avoid evil. Can this get complex? Sure. But essentially, it is “As long as I’m in charge here, I require you to do the right thing.”
We are also responsible for judging good and evil in all our civic roles: as jurors — that’s obvious — and also as members of political parties or movements, as consumers of media (here’s where a gimlet-eyed scrutiny is urgently called for!) and as citizens and voters.
Don’t forget that as citizens and voters, we are the “officers” of our local and national life and not just the “subordinates.” Political officials are public servants. If we make no attempt to admonish these servants or require them to do the right thing, we become in some degree responsible for public wrongs.
What are we, the laity, responsible to judge?
Canon Law makes it simple: everything in this world.
That is, we laity are the rightful and right-out-loud “judges” of all things in the secular and public sphere: “They have also, according to the condition of each, the special obligation to permeate and perfect the temporal order of things with the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, particularly in conducting secular business and exercising secular functions, they are to give witness to Christ.” (Code of Canon Law 226.2, emphasis added)
This is not something we can pass off to the clergy. The clergy have the responsibility to make clear and indisputable moral judgments. We, the laity, have the rightful authority to make every prudential judgment needed to “permeate” the temporal order with the “spirit of the Gospel.” This, too, upholds “the foundations of God’s throne.”
Here we get into a certain distinction between the roles of the clergy and the laity. Our pastors (priests, bishops, the pope) have authority in faith and morals — that is, the sacred truths handed down by the Apostles and the corollaries that flow from divine and natural law.
There are a lot of matters of faith that are sometimes very political (religious freedom, abortion, etc), and the distinction between de fide and public policy does not mean that clergy should never make judgments about anything that might be seen as political.
It is part of the clergy’s role as teachers of the Faith to tell us the “thou shalt nots” (as in “thou shalt not neglect the hungry and the poor.”) In the practical sense, the “shalts” are largely for us laypeople to work out. We do the math on who does what, and for whom, we work out the balance of costs and benefits, the competing risks, priorities, and claims, in the light of inescapable moral obligations. It’s not the charism of the clergy per se to work out the nuts-and-bolts details on these prudential judgments in politics, as long as evil acts are eliminated as “choices.”
Prudential judgments kick in precisely when the choice is between one Good Thing and another Good Thing, or between different ways to achieve an agreed-upon Good Thing. The principle of subsidiarity (the vesting of responsibility at the lowest and most local level that can reasonably be expected to carry it out) must constantly push for ways and means that are strongly personalist — that do not reduce “the needy” into a degrading state of permanent dependency, and that are rightly resistant to the intrusions of the omnicompetent (or omni-incompetent) State.
Now, a final question: what are the things we must not judge?
We must not judge what we cannot know.
First, we cannot know another person’s interior disposition (unless they tell us).
Thus, we can say that a statement is “false,” but we cannot simply label the speaker a “liar” if they may merely have been mistaken, or uninformed, or we might not have understood them correctly. We can know for sure that a particular act is “a mortal sin” if it is done with a normal degree of knowledge and intentionality; but we cannot instantly say with certainty that a particular individual is “a mortal sinner” if the person might have been ignorant or confused, terrified, acting under coercion, drunk, on drugs, or just plain crazy.
Second, we cannot know another man or woman’s final destination, i.e., whether they are damned.
Thus the Church canonizes, but does not demonize. This is also why we pray for everyone, absolutely everyone — for those reputed to be heavenly heroes and those reputed to be wicked as hell. Here the judgment (thank the Lord) is the Lord’s alone. For the dead and their eternal destiny we must pray always and for all.
That is when we rightly say, “Who am I to judge?”
Julianne Loesch Wiley, a contributing editor to Voices, is a Catholic writer and longtime pro-life activist. She is the wife of Donald Wiley and the mother of two sons. The Wileys live in Johnson City, Tennessee.
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