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When to judge, when to ‘judge not’?

This column also appears in the 
Michigan Catholic

by Al Kresta

KrestaEvery few years television talk shows recycle past popular themes. One perennial favorite features prostitutes who, even after marrying their pimps, keep working the streets. “Why give up the income? It’s not cheating, it’s just a job. After all, he benefits too.”

Invariably, some audience member stands up to express moral dismay. Mr. and Mrs. PP gamely sneer, wag a bejeweled finger and quote Jesus, “Judge not that you be not judged.” Members of the audience clap and hoot. A surgeon in Great Britain amputates limbs for persons who desire the latest in bodily mutilation. (Yes, this is a true story and not the worst.) Accused of using his healing art to reinforce mental illness for profit, he protests, “Who am I to judge a patient’s values? I am just there to help him find his happiness, his truth.”

Into this confusion enters Pope Francis’ words “Who am I to judge?” With those words, many assumed he was finally leading the Church into the modern age and was endorsing moral indifference to private issues of sexual morality and abortion. The Advocate, a magazine for American homosexuals, even placed him on its front cover with the tattoo “No H8” on his right cheek and his quote “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord in good will, who am I to judge?” near his lips. The awkward fact that Francis maintained the Catechism’s teaching on the immorality of homosexual acts was conveniently ignored. Francis was, however, reminding us that we are not to judge those who only find themselves same-sex attracted.

Catholics who still try to take motes and beams seriously heard the Vicar of Christ echoing Jesus, the Christ: “Judge not that you be not judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Mt 7:1-2). Jesus wasn’t prohibiting moral judgments. He was challenging the standards we employ.

Would Jesus have agreed with the British surgeon and not judged his clients’ demands? Would he have officiated at Mr. and Mrs. PP’s wedding? No, the popular interpretation that Jesus absolutely prohibits moral judgments is simply impossible!

This hit me one night after I had finished speaking to about a hundred Catholics. The first person standing for the question-and-answer period accused me of judging others as he invoked America’s favorite Bible verse. How absurd. He was shamelessly judging me for being shamefully judgmental.

I asked him to jump to verse 15 of Matthew 7: “Watch out for false prophets. By their fruit you will recognize them.” How am I to judge their fruit if I’m not to judge at all? Without judging, I cannot do what Jesus asks me to do.

American popular culture twists Jesus’ teaching on judgment and tries to bully untutored Catholics to abstain from all moral judgments. It’s a bargain modern culture tries to strike with us. “I’m OK, you’re OK, everyone’s OK unless you deny we are all OK. Then you’re not OK.” Many American Catholics are allies in this tactic. They bleach our popular language of moral judgments hoping they will escape judgment as they pursue the idols of money, sex and power. They imagine we are standing on the hard ground of moral intolerance when in fact we are awash in a sea of moral indifference. America’s problem is not moral rigorism, but laxity.

So what did Jesus mean by “Judge not”? John 7:24 expands on it: “Judge not according to the appearance but judge with righteous judgment.” This is no brief for moral relativism. To the contrary, it’s a call to develop moral discrimination and judge rightly.

Our judgments are morally wrong,

• when we write someone off before the day of God’s final judgment,

• when we belittle or demean someone’s dignity and worth because of his immoral or imprudent behavior,

• when we aim at tearing down with criticism rather than building up with encouraging correction,

• when we gossip about someone rather than lovingly confront the one we think has gone astray,

• when we fail to hold ourselves to the same standards we use in assessing others,

• when we refuse to forgive “seven-times-seventy” and refuse to be agents of mercy and reconciliation.

Mercy is the heart of the Church’s offer to the world. But modern America cannot comprehend mercy because it cannot comprehend sin. Americans prefer to affirm one another than share mercy with one another. By twisting Jesus’ teaching, we end up excusing sin rather than the far more challenging task of forgiving it. Nevertheless, Hebrews urges disciples to strive for maturity, i.e., having our “senses trained to discern good from evil.” Refine, don’t euthanize, the moral sense and find, therein, a path to life and human flourishing.


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