Who am I to judge?

An obvious answer to the question is, “nobody,” since God the Father has committed all judgment to his Son, Jesus Christ (John 5:22). So we should not be surprised that St. Paul to exhort the Romans “to stop judging one another” (Romans. 14:13). The context comes just a few verses before: “Why then do you judge your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God.” (14:10) The context is that final judgment is reserved to God. We are not meant to judge another person by closing the loop of justice on his or her life with a final verdict before God when the final verdict belongs to Christ, and Him alone. There is always hope for any man or woman this side of the grave to repent and return to the way of salvation. Jesus testified to this upon the cross when He forgave the repentant thief (Luke 23:43).

The conclusion follows that we are not to judge another person, right? Well, yes and no. The word “judgment” is pretty charged these days and all too easily thrown around. But when we use the word “judgment” in everyday life, what do we mean?. Merriam Webster defines judgment as “the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing.” Merriam-Webster does not “decide” the meaning, but part of its role is to capture the way in which we use the language. One only need look at the word “peruse” to see original meanings can be very different, opposite in fact, from the meaning of current use:

  • to look over or through in a casual or cursory manner (popular usage)
  • to examine or consider with attention and in detail (original)

These days we “judge” the worthiness of Netflix movies to get some of our attention and time. We “judge” whether there is a difference between fast food and fast casual. Such is the popular usage of the word “judgment.” It is in the same boat with “peruse.” Returning to Merriam Webster’s definition: “the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing.” The degree to which we discern and compare might be up for debate, but we all have opinions – and opinions that may well be based on a solid foundation of experience. But the question is whether we have formed our conscience.

What is “conscience?” Pope Saint John Paul II defined conscience as follows in Veritatis Splendor (#59): “The judgment of conscience is a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do or not do, or which assesses an act already performed by him. We are obliged to form our conscience on how to make judgments about good deeds to be done or evil ones to be avoided, while suspending fully resolved judgments about persons as they stand before God, whether in life or in death.” Clearly we are not talking about Netflix or fast casual.

Paragraph 1730 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) offers: “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. ‘God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.”  Such is the freedom and responsibility given to each of us.

You should take the time to read the paragraphs following CCC-1730, but special attention should be given to CCC-1776 and following. (The link takes you to the US Bishop’s online version of CCC by which you can read the full text). The title of the section is revealing: “The Judgment of Conscience.”  If you don’t want to read the paragraph and following, there is a summary “In Brief.” I would draw your attention to the phrase “a well formed conscience” or in Catholic moral theology, conscientia informata, an informed conscience. This is something way past simple opinion or even intuitive conscience.

Who am I to judge? A better answer is that I am nobody to judge another, but I have a role as a person of faith to take seriously my own counsel by forming and judging my conscience through the teaching of the Church: “Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them” (CCC-1799) and yet “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” (CCC-1800).  These are both summaries and should not be taken out of their context – read the whole of CCC-1176 and following.

Too often I hear people invoke Pope Francis’ statement “who I am to judge” as guidance or permission to use our opinions or intuitive conscience to reach a conclusion about any one of many moral questions in our time. Moral questions for which we have to make “practical judgments” that affect our lives, our family, our friends, and more. I could not disagree more with that understanding of the Pope’s meaning.

Who are we to judge? We are individuals to whom God has given great freedom and left us in the hand of our own counsel, so that of our own accord we may seek God and his blessings more fully through the judgment and formation of our conscience. Then we will have a beginning understand of another misunderstood verse: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)

That seems like a tall order, trying to be perfect. And if you think of it as being without flaw, spot, or blemish, then you are correct – it is a tall order. It is above our pay grade. But then again, “be perfect” does not seem like a suggestion. It appears it is a command from Jesus. 

The word “perfect,” telios, is a Greek word which speaks of wholeness, a completeness, a certain end point, goal or destiny that is our calling. There is always a future element about it. “…be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Our destiny, our divine calling – a project for this lifetime. A project that with the grace of God is ours to work towards, even if its fulfillment is in the life to come. That project begins with forming and judging our conscientia informata.

Have no doubt there will be rough spots on the journey and you will reach crossroads which demand a decision and won’t give you the time you need or desire to form and judge your choice, and a myriad of other, and it won’t let up until we leave this mortal coil. It’s the journey. May you travel it well in the grace and love of God.

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