Monday, June 25, 2012

Does Christ mean that we cannot ever judge anyone?

Monday of the 12th week in Ordinary Time, Matthew 7:1-5
Stop judging, that you may not be judged.
Our Lord tells us that we must not judge our neighbor, and he does not say that we may judge sometimes, or when the case is clear and obvious to us, but rather that we must never judge.
St. James says the same: He that detracteth his brother, or he that judgeth his brother, detracteth the law, and judgeth the law. But if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one lawgiver, and judge, that is able to destroy and to deliver. But who art thou that judgest thy neighbour? (James 4:11-13)
What shall we say, then, must we never judge another? Is it wrong to form any opinions at all about others?

Magistrates and judges must judge
Commenting this verse, Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide tells us:
“Christ does not here prohibit the public judgments of magistrates, by which they condemn the guilty and absolve the innocent, for this is necessary in all commonwealths, but only private judgments, and that when they are rash, envious, detractive, for they are repugnant to charity and justice, yea to God Himself, whose office of judgment is usurped. For we have not been set to be judges but companions of our neighbours. Wherefore if we have an evil opinion of him we do him an injury. And we take away his good fame if we let this judgment go abroad; for reputation is a great good, greater far than riches. So S. Jerome, Bede, and Basil.”
St. Thomas Aquinas points out that God himself commanded the Israelites to set up judges and magistrates to pronounce judgment: Thou shalt appoint judges and magistrates in all thy gates … that they may judge the people with just judgment. (Deuteronomy 16:18)
For, indeed, the judge stands in judgment not over the things of God (i.e. not over the salvation or damnation of men), but over the things pertaining to the common good. Hence, the punishment which a human judge or magistrates gives does not pertain to salvation, but only to the good of human society (for example, imprisonment, or a fine).
Thus, a judgment may be sinful on three accounts: First, that it not proceed from an inclination to true justice, but rather from contempt or revenge or some other illicit motive. Second, that it be about something in which a man has not authority to judge, as by a usurpation (for example, when a secular judge dares to define what constitutes a Catholic organization). Third, when a judgment is made without moral certainty but only on suspicion – this is “rash judgment”.
Therefore, excepting in the courts, there is never a time when we may judge our neighbor – for we are not as God and do not see his heart, nor do we know all of the circumstances. Finally, even if we did know all these, we have not been appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead, thus we have no authority to judge our neighbor.
If we cease to judge our neighbor, and focus more on judging ourselves, we will make great progress in the spiritual life.
Advice from St. Francis de Sales
The Doctor of the Catholic Press writes of this topic with a divine eloquence in Introduction to the Devout Life, book III, chapter 28 – [here]. Below are several helpful quotation from this chapter.
“Of a truth, hasty judgments are most displeasing to God, and men's judgments are hasty, because we are not judges one of another, and by judging we usurp our Lord's own office. Man's judgment is hasty, because the chief malice of sin lies in the intention and counsel of the heart, which is shrouded in darkness to us. Moreover, man's judgments are hasty, because each one has enough to do in judging himself, without undertaking to judge his neighbour. If we would not be judged, it behoves us alike not to judge others, and to judge ourselves.”
How do we stop making rash judgments?
The saints admit that there is scarcely a man who does not fall to the sin of rash judgment, that is, of making any judgment against his neighbor.
De Sales continues:
“What remedy can we apply [to rid ourselves of rash judgments]? They who drink the juice of the Ethiopian herb Ophiusa imagine that they see serpents and horrors everywhere; and those who drink deep of pride, envy, ambition, hatred, will see harm and shame in every one they look upon.
“The first can only be cured by drinking palm wine, and so I say of these latter,--Drink freely of the sacred wine of love, and it will cure you of the evil tempers which lead you to these perverse judgments. So far from seeking out that which is evil, Love dreads meeting with it, and when such meeting is unavoidable, she shuts her eyes at the first symptom, and then in her holy simplicity she questions whether it were not merely a fantastic shadow which crossed her path rather than sin itself. Or if Love is forced to recognise the fact, she turns aside hastily, and strives to forget what she has seen.
“Of a truth, Love is the great healer of all ills, and of this above the rest. Everything looks yellow to a man that has the jaundice; and it is said that the only cure is through the soles of the feet.
“Most assuredly the sin of rash judgments is a spiritual jaundice, which makes everything look amiss to those who have it; and he who would be cured of this malady must not be content with applying remedies to his eyes or his intellect, he must attack it through the affections, which are as the soul's feet.
“If your affections are warm and tender, your judgment will not be harsh; if they are loving, your judgment will be the same.”
Are we never to judge?
“Are we never, then, to judge our neighbour? you ask. Never, my child. It is God Who judges criminals brought before a court of law. He uses magistrates to convey His sentence to us; they are His interpreters, and have only to proclaim His law. If they go beyond this, and are led by their own passions, then they do themselves judge, and for so doing they will be judged. It is forbidden to all men alike, as men, to judge one another.”
And St. Francis de Sales continues, explaining that it is one thing to be cautious and another to judge:
“We do not necessarily judge because we see or are conscious of something wrong. Rash judgment always presupposes something that is not clear, in spite of which we condemn another. It is not wrong to have doubts concerning a neighbour, but we ought to be very watchful lest even our doubts or suspicions be rash and hasty.
“If an action is in itself indifferent, it is a rash suspicion to imagine that it means evil, unless there is strong circumstantial evidence to prove such to be the case. And it is a rash judgment when we draw condemnatory inferences from an action which may be blameless.”
Be like bees, when a storm is coming
De Sales loves to make analogies to bees, and he offers a most profitable metaphor:
“Those who keep careful watch over their conscience are not often liable to form rash judgments, for just as when the clouds lower the bees make for the shelter of their hive, so really good people shrink back into themselves, and refuse to be mixed up with the clouds and fogs of their neighbour's questionable doings, and rather than meddle with others, they consecrate their energies on their own improvement and good resolutions.
“There is no surer sign of an unprofitable life than when people give way to censoriousness and inquisitiveness into the lives of other men.”


Michael said...

What about Matthew 18:15 and other instances in the New Testament, where Jesus or St. Paul tells us to correct people when they sin?

Could this be reconciled by telling someone to stop getting drunk but making sure you don't say they're going to hell?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Good question!
Our Lord, in that place, refers to the judgment which the prelates of the Church must render on certain occasions ... in this, it is like with the magistrates (who judge by the authority which God has given them).

Likewise, when St. Paul says that we will judge angels (1 Cor 6) ... he is principally referring to the fact that the great saints will judge the world at the end of time ... it is not judgment now, but on the last day.

I wrote an article on this once before, you may find it helpful:

Still, (acting as men, and not with the authority of God as when the Pope or Bishop acts as pastor of the Church) we must never judge our neighbor.

Peace! +

Leo said...

What is the best way to explain the difference between admonishing the sinner and the judgement of our neighbor which is not approved of in Matthew 7? When we are admonishing the sinner is it correct to say that we are judging an action to be wrong?

David said...

Dear father,

I think it would be good for us moderns to get a good and strict definition of what "judgment" actually is. Because I think it is nowadays often equated with any sort of uncompromising attitude towards sin. What is your take on what the Haydock Bible Commentary says on the passage from Matthew 7:1 (found here:

It should be noted however that fraternal correction – an act of charity – is quite different from judgment in the sense meant here, even though it involves judgments in a broad sense of the word. And in some cases even inferiors should admonish their superiors, as can be surmised from the Summa (II-II, q33, a4), which means that not even such admonishment can be equated with judgment, since judgment strictly always belongs to the superior and not to the inferior.

Do you have any suggestions for a good definition of judgment in the sense meant by Christ here?

In the Sacred Heart of Jesus,

ellen said...

A really difficult case is where parents have to make a judgement about a child's behaviour, especially an adult child. For instance, if a child seems to be living a very immoral lifestyle but denies it, what should the parent do?

Bobby Bambino said...

Thank you so much for this, Father. To continue along the lines of Michael's question, is it considered judging someone to make them aware of a sin they continue to commit? I suppose I am wondering about the balance between not judging, yet showing concern for the soul of friends or even family. It seems like it would not be an act of charity to, say, not inform a legally divorced person that they may not get married again because their marriage to their first spouse is still (presumably) valid. But this can also be considered a judgement or condemnation of the individual. Is there a balance here? Thank you, God love you.

Anonymous said...

It appears that you do not draw a distinction between judging a person and judging a person's action or activity? However, if I read you correctly, you can have an opinion if your judgment is based on true justice or what man has authority to judge or if your opinion is based on moral certainty. These jugdments would be obtained from Church teachings so as to form a good conscience. Without a properly formed conscience, formed through Church teachings, one would not be able to distinguish good from bad or be able to point out, i.e., give an opinion, as to whether actions are sinful. Thus, it would not be judgmental to point to activity and say "That is bad" but would be judgmental to say about the individual "He is going to hell because of that bad activity." What do you think.

Anonymous said...

Don't we have an obligation to point out that certain conduct is objectively wrong or sinful but leaving the subjective culpability of the person committing that act to the judgement of God alone? Also, don't laypersons also have the obligation to make fraternal correction after prayer and consultation with one's spiritual adviser? thank you.

Anonymous said...

And yet one of the spiritual works of mercy is to correct the sinner. Are only priests to do this? What about parents? As a parent, I have to make judgements all the time. I am not judging the person's standing before God, but I must make determinations about many things in order to "do my job". For instance, can my child spend time with a particular friend, who I may have reason to believe may not be promoting virtue in their relationship? I am not trying to be a smart aleck, but this has always bothered me. Even for myself, if I know a person is a near occasion of sin for me, I am duty bound to limit or end my time with them. But to get to this point, I have had to have made a judgement about the situation.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Regarding the question of judging and action vs judging a person:

While it is true that this distinction is "theoretically" very helpful, in practice it is quite tricky.
For example: We may learn that a Cardinal died in a house of ill repute ... and not realize he was there to administer Last Rites to one of the girls (and this really did happen to a very prominent theologian/Cardinal in the years right after Vatican II).

Or, we might see a young priest not in his clerics and out to a movie with a young woman ... and not realize that she is his sister (again, I know this case personally). [however, I should note, that the priest ought to have been in his collar -- but we might think the sin is worse than it really is]

There are so many cases were we say we are only judging the action ... but in fact we are not in any place to make such a judgment.

However, we do indeed affirm that sin is sin and it is wrong ... but we must be careful to judge whether a particular action is always as it seems.

And still, this implies no compromise with sin. No, we must hate sin.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

ellen, and others,
Yes, certainly parents have a duty to watch over their children. Thank you for mentioning that point!

Here is a little bit more from St Francis de Sales (you will easily see how it applies) --

"Of course exception must be made as to those who are responsible for others, whether in family or public life;--to all such it becomes a matter of conscience to watch over the conduct of their fellows. Let them fulfil their duty lovingly, and let them also give heed to restrain themselves within the bounds of that duty."

Hope that clarifies a bit! It is a very grave responsibility to have authority over others ... we must needs pray the good God to direct us and help us to be both merciful and clement. +

Anonymous said...


I believe that the injunction to not judge does not mean that a private individual absolutely may never judge a neighbor. Sometimes the evidence is such that reasonable assumptions allow one to hold that another has committed a moral fault. Of course, even assumptions of that sort are still subject, more or less, to a margin of error, since the workings of another's conscience is generally hidden to observation.

The Official Catechism of the Catholic Church states that rash judgment arises when a person, “even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor.” And “to avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way.”

From a Manual of Christian Doctrine (1910) by a Seminary Professor, from the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, there is this:
2. Rash Judgment and Suspicion.
59. What is a rash judgment ?
A rash judgment is an act of the mind by which, for light and insufficient reasons, we condemn our neighbor as unquestionably vicious and culpable.
60. What is a rash suspicion ?
A rash suspicion is the inclination to consider as true the evil which we think of others, without, however, believing it to be certain.
61. What is a rash doubt ?
A rash doubt is the suspension of judgment in respect to the merits of our neighbor, without sufficient reason.
63. In general, what should we do so as not to commit sin in forming an estimate of our neighbor's conduct ?
In general, when we form an estimate of the external actions of our neighbor, we should not judge his intentions, for these God alone knows.

In Moral Theology by Fr. Heribert Jone(1962) there is this additional point that can be made about judgments: To exercise caution in regard to others is not sinful, “since one does not think evil of one's neighbor, but merely reckons with the factual possibility of one's being deceived” about the righteousness of another, and “suffer from such deception.”


Picard said...

As Duan pointed correctly to, it is not that we are never ever allowed to "judge" privately.

I could promote lots of quotes by theologians here - and historical examples in Church-history.

Remember, there is the "correctio fraterna", that would be impossible without beeing allowed to private "judgement".

And we are even sometimes allowed to resist superiors or higher persons, as St. Thomas explains when he speaks about Galatians 2, 11 (cf. his qu. in the summa).

Again, St. Paul must have "judged" that Peter were wrong here to resist him - and of course not authoritatively, but only privately (because Paul was not Peter´s superior).

So only rash judgement is prohibited according to moral theology, not every private "judgement".
If you have evidence, privat "judgement" can be allowed or even sometimes a duty.

Well, perhaps better not to call it "judgement" then, because it is not "judgement" i.t.s.s. of the word.
Or call it judging the acts, not the persons, if you like, as suggested above.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff. Thx Fr. for the post.


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