The question is hostile and condemnatory. It is a great irony that one has to judge severely to level the accusatory interrogative at another. The sacred words “judge not lest ye be judged” have been impressively abused by those with less than holy intentions. They are certainly words to live by when taken as a proper part of an integrated whole of the Gospel message and understood with the mind of Holy Mother Church. However, wrenched from their Catholic context, these words become a bludgeon to assault conscientious souls lest they cast light on less than savory behavior.
The truth is that all humans judge. At the most basic level of human existence it is a survival requirement to judge. Nothing could be more normal, natural or human. It is an inherent contradiction if one says “I don’t judge” because the very claim requires a judgment about whether or not one is judging. Judging is universal, it is to the mind what breathing is to the body; everyone does it.
Our ability to judge things comes from our God given faculty of the intellect. This is one aspect of God’s divinity present as an image in each human soul. The main function of the intellect is to make distinctions and its proper use is to judge rightly. In fact, it is a misuse of the intellect to judge wrongly. The question for us Catholics is not whether or not we will judge, the real question is HOW are we going to judge? Are we judging righteously or wrongly?
Why Is Judgement So Difficult Today?
Before we really begin to understand judgment, we must call to mind the grave intellectual error of this age, that of abstraction and reduction. There is the deadly tendency in the soundbite age to take a snap shot of a situation and treat it as if it is the whole state of affairs. A prime example is when our Holy Father said “who am I to judge?” Indeed the Holy Father said it, he meant it and it was a prudent statement demonstrating mature Christian judgement. The problem is that the media cut off some of the Holy Father’s words and treated “who am I to judge” as a blanket universal when in fact it was only a qualified statement, only a part of a bigger whole.
If we put the Holy Father’s words back into their context, we will learn that he was speaking in fidelity with the Church and in concert with sound moral theology. He had been asked about the questionable sexual proclivities of a Vatican official. The Holy Father looked into it as was his Christian duty. The Holy Father actually said “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” The key to making that statement Catholic is recognizing that we cannot judge the state of another person’s soul or make any kind of determination about their relationship with God. We are to encourage our brothers and sister to follow God’s law and to reconcile with the Lord. It is a spiritual act of mercy to point out our brothers immoral acts. However, we may not judge the particular consequences of a particular person’s actions.
What Does Jesus Say About Judgment?
Let’s put Christ’s words on judgement back into their context and perhaps we can leave this conversation with a better understanding of the right use of judgment. First we must look at what Jesus said about judgment inn Mathew 7:1 when He says “judge not lest you be judged.” By this Christ really means that we ought not to judge a person’s moral state and condemn them. We must not pass judgement on the state of their souls, for only God can see all the ends of human persons and how they related to Him.
By contrast, an appropriate kind of judgement for us concerns discerning the goodness or badness of particular acts. We can easily determine whether or not a thing is a good or bad thing to do if we cultivate the habit of using reason rightly in conjunction with a will ordered to the good and true. We can even go so far as to say that what a particular person chooses to do is a bad or good thing, but we have to stop short of pronouncing a sentence on an individual by way of reward or punishment for certain actions, this is for God who said “let vengeance be mine.”
It would surprise the judgmental hypocrites judging everyone who judges to learn that Christ himself directly commands us to judge. Shortly after Jesus explains how we ought not to judge by condemnation, in John 7:24 he tells us “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” The exhortation to not judge is to not judge by appearances, otherwise, we are told by Christ Himself to judge with right judgment. If we take Christ’s teaching as an integral whole, we will begin to see that proper judgment is much more than just for our physical survival, it is for our spiritual survival and our choice to accept God’s offer of salvation hinges upon right judgment.
St. Thomas Aquinas on Judgement
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us in question 60 of the Summa that “judgement properly denotes the act of a judge as such.” We must be careful about what kinds of judgements we make because the word judgment properly employed “is a statement or decision of the just or right.” St, Thomas goes on to explain that “to decide rightly about virtuous deeds proceeds, properly speaking, from the virtuous habit; thus a chaste person decides rightly about matters relating to chastity.” If we are not in possession of a virtuous habit, it is likely that our judgment concerning acts pertaining to that certain habit will be flawed. For an example, a person who has no regard for sexual morality will not be able to properly judge behaviors concerning sexual morality. St. Thomas concludes that “Therefore judgment, which denotes a right decision about what is just, belongs properly to justice.” In other words, only a just man can make a just judgment.
St. Thomas goes on in article 2 to answer the question about whether or not it is lawful to judge. He rightfully claims that “Judgment is lawful in so far as it is an act of justice.” We may rightly ask how one might know for certain that one’s judgment is in fact an act of justice. St. Thomas says there are three required conditions for a judgment to be just. First, it must proceed “from the inclination of justice.” This inclination to justice must proceed from moral virtue, and not from appetitive desire for “fairness.” Second, the judgment must “come from one who is in authority.” It is a matter of prudence to recognize the things over which we do and do not have authority. Third, the judgement must be “pounced according to the right ruling of prudence.” To be prudent is to see things as they actually are, therefore, if one cannot see what is really going on around him, than right judgment is impossible.
St. Thomas explains that if any of these conditions are not present or if there is a lack or defect in any of them, then a judgment is not lawful. He clarifies the three positions by stating of the first that if the judgment does not square with the natural and divine law “it is called perverted or unjust.” Second, he points out that many people judge on matters outside their authority and “this is called judgment by usurpation.” In the third condition when the faculty of reason is not ordered to the virtue of prudence, the man does not have a solid motive to judge and “it is called judgment by suspicion or rash judgment.” Not only are these conditions for judgment an excellent standard by which to judge the rightness of our own judgments, but they can be used to see the errors of judgment in the public square put out by politicians and the Mass media. It is easy to see that media pronouncements trying to falsely pit Pope Francis against Holy Mother Church lack all three conditions, and are unlawful because they are false.
To Judge Rightly as Christ Commands
To judge rightly is to see that the Lord of all creation, by His sacred word of Christ and His holy breath of love is the arbiter of all truth both in the sacred and secular orders. We are but his creatures and our right judgment hinges. All of the created order has a purpose, not the purpose mankind might impose on things, but divine and natural purpose engendered by God Himself. Proper judgement requires the arduous and effort aided by the graces of the Holy Spirit to acquire and receive the virtues, both intellectual and moral, to discover the proper order and purpose of things as God intended them.
Christ warns us not to judge by appearances and St. Thomas Aquinas elucidates the conditions required for us to judge righteous judgement as we are exhorted by Christ. Let us begin by recognizing that we must order our judgments to the will of God. By way of reflection, we can begin with St. Thomas’ three conditions for right judgement to make sure that we ourselves do not judge unjustly, by the usurpation of authority that is not our own and that we do not judge suspicious or rash judgment. We might notice too that in the public square, this holy standard does not apply and we would be prudent to disbelieve the judgments pronounced by politicians and the media and embrace the truths we learn revealed to us by Christ and elucidated by the Church Doctors.