“Who am I to judge?” The words of Pope Francis have been often repeated, used wisely and misused since he posed the question in July of 2013. Most often, those using the quotation leave out the preceding portion of the statement, “seeks God and has good will.” The two phrases of the statement are inseparable. Separating them leads to an improper use of judgement. The statement speaks to motivations and actions. Only God can, with certainty, judge motivations.
The words of Pope Francis can be traced to John 7:24:
Stop judging by appearances, but judge justly. (John 7:24)
In our world today, we all too often judge others harshly, make false assumptions based on our own personal views or prejudices and the result leaves justice behind. This can be referred to as rash judgment or in some cases calumny. Most of us, myself included have been guilty of this transgression at some point in our lives. We are, after all, human.
Sections 2477, 2478 and 2479 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, posted below, instructs us to avoid rash judgement of others.
2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.280
2479 Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.
In my own search to please God, I have found that I must swallow my pride and come to understand my personal faults. If I can come to understand, with the help of the Holy Spirit, these faults which lead me to rash judgement, detraction and calumny, I can begin the painful steps toward change and a perfected union with Christ.
Recently, I was told by a wise friend, who constantly seeks God’s will, there are three sins which lead to rash judgement, detraction and calumny: haste, persistent ill will against others and rigor. I can honestly say I have been guilty of all three sins at some point in my life.
What does the Bible tell us about these sins?
Let us look first at haste or precipitance, which is a sin of the senses. The book of Proverbs offers a guide through our thoughts and actions.
The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage, But everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty.
A faithful man will abound with blessings, But he who makes haste to be rich will not go unpunished.
Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him precipitance,
These verses remind me of the words offered to me during early adulthood by a mentor. He said, “Wait before you speak, take time before you express your opinion. When you are ready, wait a little longer.” (Paraphrased) He saw well my propensity to rush to judgement. I owe him a debt of thanks for these wise words.
The second is persistent ill-will against others, malice or spite. All three are great sins of the intellect and therefore more serious than sins of the senses. A sin of the intellect is a choice of evil and rejects Christ and all that He offers. People who are malicious are truly choosing evil.
The words of the great evangelist, St. Paul, gives us brilliant insight into the evil of these sins.
They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,
1 Corinthians 5:8
Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
1 Corinthians 14:20
Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.
St. Paul’s words show us that persistent ill will, malice and spite are failures in the adult intellect and represent our own lack of self control. The antidote can often be as simple as breath and pray before we react. We may also have to avoid those around us who gossip and draw us into this sin.
Because of our own propensity to sin, we will often misjudge the intention of others. My maternal grandmother used to tell me, “Put yourself in their shoes. Be the peacemaker.” More often than not, for me, this is no easy task.
The last sin behind rash judgment is rigor, or a stiffness of one’s own opinion often with a tendency toward cruelty. Most of us in our own lives have either experienced or witnessed cruelty. Cruelty toward our brothers and sisters cries out for justice. Cruelties are demonstrated in both words or deeds. It should go without saying that this is an affront to all moral persons.
Unfortunately, in the storm of emotions around us in today’s secular world, cruelty is often ignored, accepted and in extreme cases wrongly justified.
Rigor can lead to cruelty. Scripture gives strong admonitions against rigor and cruelty.
You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.
Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.
Rigor is a sin of pride. Our pride blocks us from seeing our own faults and focusing on the faults of others. Our pride can cause us to judge others harshly and spur on our tendency toward cruelty.
Acts of humility and generosity help us to overcome our rigor. Some seven years ago this was brought to my attention by a good priest, friend and spiritual director. He suggested I become more generous in my behavior toward others and in some cases perform acts of kindness for them. There is nothing quite like performing an act of kindness toward someone we truly don’t care to be around to force us to “swallow” our pride and break away from rigor and potential cruelty.
Even in our human weakness, through the use of natural law, we can determine the gravity of certain actions: abortion, murder, fornication, adultery, theft, and more. However, we cannot determine the state of a person’s immortal soul or their motivation. We leave this judgment to God.
As a result, we should not resort to condemning the person through name calling or cruelty. In love, we should instruct and guide. Today’s world of instantaneous information, often erroneous, will work against our own sanctity if we do not stop, breathe and pray.
We are ALL created in the image and likeness of God.
God is good!