Rorate Caeli

Thoughts on "Who am I to judge?" from Neil McCaffrey (December 1977)

(Of course, the title of this post is deliberately anachronistic, but it is remarkable how similar the problems of today are to those of 1977. This memorandum by noted conservative publisher Neil McCaffrey strikes right at a central issue of our own day. He sent it to a number of his closest friends.)

December 12, 1977

Memo to: All Concerned

From: Neil McCaffrey

I am trying to work out some ideas about charity. If you have any comments on what follows, whether agreeing or disagreeing, I’d be grateful for them.

False charity, it seems to me, is pandemic, and encouraged in the highest places. But if current excesses are travesties of travesties, the travesties were always there. Which is why modern Catholics, even the orthodox fragment, are helpless when confronted with this solvent of all

Our Lord warns us to beware of false prophets; St. Paul bids us reject even an angel who departs from traditional teaching; Peter is at least party to, and clearly endorses, the striking dead of two followers who had lied to him; and the Apostle of Love instructs us to ostracize heretics, and himself refuses even to go to a public bath frequented by one. It is more than clear, therefore, that the virtue of charity is not only compatible with but actually requires sternness, punishment, many kinds of judging. (The ultimate judgment can of course only be rendered by God, and we sin if we pretend to such a power. But we must make a host of ad hoc and provisional judgments every day: as parents, as priests, as people in any kind of authority. We must judge to avoid bad companions, to keep from being cheated, to advise, etc. Indeed, to live is to judge, and to pretend not to judge is to deny our very nature. Judging is intrinsic to the act of thinking itself.)

The practical consequence of fake charity (if we need an example, when the very stones cry out) was seen year or so ago, when the faculty and parents of a midwestern “Catholic” high school named after JFK were no longer able to ignore stories of Jack’s whoring. They met and, what do you know, they voted to keep the great name. “We can’t judge,” they intoned virtuously.

This example may seem grotesque, but it is in fact the all but universal response of pseudo-Christians and, shockingly often, of serious Christians.

Von Hildebrand has pointed out that sin, any sin, is first an offense against God, which only He can forgive. Yet most spiritual writers of the better sort urge on us instant forgiveness, quite overlooking a serious problem. For a sin to be forgiven, God requires repentance (necessarily—repentance is no mere grace note. God cannot forgive without it). The spiritual writers ask no such requirement. Nothing short of automatic forgiveness is what they demand of us.

What they are really saying, if they only realized it, is that their version of charity improves on God’s!

It follows, of course, that the sort of charity preached to us over the centuries is often counterfeit: or so I read the logic of the case. Am I missing something?

On the other hand, I squirm when I find myself on the wrong side of centuries of spiritual writers. Could most of them have erred on this central point? And yet, from what we know of Scripture, what reasons can you offer to show that they have not gone wrong?