Rorate Caeli

"Dear Father": Answers for Troubled Times
III - My Pastor is Now Addicted to "Who am I to judge?" -- Now what?

Dear Father,

I'm somewhat confused by a pastor, who used to be very conservative until two years ago, but who's been recently using, 'Who am I to judge?' often in his sermons, criticizing those 'who judge,' in his words. Now, when he's criticizing those whom he sees as 'judgmental', isn't he himself judging? So, isn't there some level of contradiction in this sentence, this fear of 'judgment' being used to...well, 'judge' others, as 'judgmental', 'hypocrites', 'pharisees', etc?

Mesmerized in Mississippi

Dear Mesmerized in Mississippi,

Let me begin my answer to your question about the phrase heard more and more in these times, “Who am I to judge?,” with this statement (which may seem harsh but it needs to be said):  Never underestimate the fatuousness of the clergy.  I offer this in the context of how you posed your question, namely, your parish priest who is using this phrase often in his homilies.

Now we must be honest and say that we know where this phrase comes from, at least in the present time.  It comes from the now famous interview that Pope Francis gave to reporters on the plane coming back to Rome from Rio de Janeiro.  The reporters, ever wanting to find out how far the Pope would go in his plans to “re-structure” the Church, in the broadest sense of that verb, pushed him on hot button topics, one of which is the Catholic teaching on homosexuality.  The Pope’s response to the question of whether there is a gay lobby in the Curia is well known:  "When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem ... they're our brothers."  This answer was taken by the press as a major shift in Catholic attitudes/teaching towards homosexuality.  I will not dwell on Pope Francis’s words, mainly because, like so much of his impromptu declarations, it is difficult to know what he actually said.

But this much is clear. The press and the secular media understood these words, “Who am I to judge?”, as a sign that the Catholic Church is finally coming into the twenty-first century, where moral judgments are a thing of the past, especially in those areas in which, as verified by polls, the whole culture is moving towards an acceptance of different "life-styles" that somehow transcend even the possibility of a negative moral judgment.

Now we must clear the decks, so to speak, and say what this phrase/question does NOT mean for Christians who believe in Scripture, Tradition and the Church.  Those who use this expression to speak against the very act of judgment in any way point to its supposed basis in that famous and oft-quoted passage from the Gospel according to St. Matthew where Jesus says the following:  “Judge not, lest you be judged (Matthew 7:1).  It is important to understand that the context is the Sermon on the Mount.  The context is our Lord’s radical deepening of the understanding of the Law and its obligations for those who claim to be his followers.  What it means is that the Christian can never presume to judge another person in that absolute sense in which only God is able to judge.  The Christian can only judge another person with the same understanding and mercy that he would want another to judge him.  The passage does not mean that the Christian cannot judge whether a particular thought, word, or deed is good or bad according to the moral law that is defined by the moral teaching of the Church based on the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Christ in the Gospels.  Of course the Christian must make a judgment as to whether a particular action that he or someone else has carried out is good or bad.  Our Lord constantly made these judgments. He made them clearly and in the context of the offer of mercy that is always there with an acknowledgement of having sinned and with genuine repentance.

We do not have time to give the many examples we see in the Gospels.  But let us look at one of the most difficult passages in the Gospels dealing with judgment, mercy and forgiveness, a passage that often causes those who consider themselves traditional Catholics pause: the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11).  This is one of the most dramatic scenes in the Gospels.  There is no doubt of the woman’s sin. She has been caught in the act.  And Jesus does not dispute this nor does he mitigate the reality of the sin.  He judges the woman as a sinner.  But those who are picking up stones to apply the punishment demanded by the Law presume to judge her in the absolute sense that belongs to God alone.  And their judgment is vindictive and devoid of any conversation that would consider mercy.  And they are using this woman and her sin to attack Jesus himself. They are not judging the woman as they would hope that she would judge them if they were in her place.  So they put Jesus into a place of dilemma:  to uphold the validity of the Law against adultery as a grievous sin and carry out the demands of the Law, or to deny the Law and its proscriptions.  Jesus then does a remarkable thing.  He is silent, and he doodles with a stick in the dust of the ground.  No one knows what the doodle said, if it said anything at all.  But out of that silence comes those words:  “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The Judge judges those who judge in legalism and from hardness of heart. And the whole point of the story is in Jesus’ words to the woman:  “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”  The Lord who is the Son of the merciful God who sent Him to die on the Cross for us recognizes the sin of this woman and applies that mercy to her that only God can do and forgives her sin.  He does not excuse her sin, he does not turn away from her sin:  he forgives her sin.

Dear Mesmerized in Mississippi, the silliness of those who claim that the Christian cannot judge is patent.  We must judge so often in our lives.  How could we be parents without judging our children in terms of how they should be living their lives?  How could science proceed without judging the results of experiments, whether they are real pointers to the truth of the physical universe or whether they are faulty and at best ambiguous?  How could the Pope exercise his charism of infallibility in defining a dogma without judging whether the content of the dogma is indeed part of the Catholic faith, in continuity with the faith as it has developed through centuries under the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

I think that what you sense is the great danger of misusing the Lord’s words in Saint Matthew to break down the moral law itself in the name of “mercy”.  We see this clearly in the push by some to change the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage at the upcoming Synod on the Family in Rome.  The fact is that the crisis facing the Church today cannot be surmounted by picturing the Church as a field hospital where the wounds of the world are bound with cheap grace. The crisis has everything to do with the failure of the pastors of the Church at every level to preach and teach the mercy and joy and wonder and (difficult) truth of the Catholic faith for the past fifty years.  Cardinal Kasper et al. are absolutely right in saying that the Church must act in behalf of marriage and the family.  They are absolutely wrong in their assessment of the situation.  The crisis has come about because of the gross failure of the pastors of the Church to guide their flock (who are often more intelligent than their pastors are and who are eminently teachable if they are taught the difficult truth) into the pastures of Catholic Tradition founded on the revealed Word of God in Scripture.  It is with great sadness that we watch a Saint Patrick’s Day parade being denuded of any real relationship to that saint and his witness to the Catholic faith, or a San Gennaro festival that has been reduced to bad sausage and peppers.

What I suggest you do, dear Mesmerized in Mississippi, is to gently speak to your priest and ask him how “Who am I to judge?” squares with Scripture and Tradition and our Lord Himself, not to mention common sense.  And have patience, patience grounded in the mercy of God in His love for each one of us.

Oremus pro invicem.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla