On Judging Others – Wrongly, and Rightly

Robert Royal: As a matter of sheer logic, what most people today mean by “Who am I to judge?” is so impossible and self-contradictory, that it’s hard to believe such nonsense has become so widely accepted as the very essence of what it means to be Christian.


Jesus said (Matthew 7:1): “Judge not lest ye be judged.” And many people since, including many Christians catechized by modern culture, have translated this to mean that the whole law and the prophets – indeed, the whole teaching of Christianity, is that Christians should simply refrain from assessing what others are and do. Especially, it seems, if what they are and do contradicts Christianity. It’s devilish madness, of course. And even as a matter of sheer logic, so obviously impossible and self-contradictory, that it’s hard to believe such nonsense has become so widely accepted as the very essence of what it means to be Christian.

And yet it has. And has been reinforced – intentionally or not – even within the Church. It’s become tiresome to have to point out how even the current pope and others close to him feed these confusions. But let us gird up our loins and, once again, try to make sense about this crucial matter.

The root of the recent problem began, of course, with the pope’s infamous remark – “Who am I to judge?” – on a plane back from Brazil early in his pontificate. A reporter asked about Battista Ricca, a prelate with a notoriously homosexual past in Uruguay, whom Francis had just appointed as director of the Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guest house where the pope has chosen to live. (Francis’s remark actually wasn’t a judgment about homosexuality in general. It was – properly – conditional: “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?”)

The smart-aleck response to “Who am I to judge?,” however, has been given for all time: “Who do you need to be?” And anyway, the reporter hadn’t asked what Francis thought about homosexuality. If you’re the pope, you’re the one who has to decide who is suitable, and not, for many sensitive positions serving God’s faithful people in the Church – like the place where you and many of your colleagues will be living. You’re not, at the moment, being asked about someone’s eternal destiny. So why pivot to a current cliché?

There’s no avoiding making such judgments, which may prove to be wise – or, as in this case, not, given the predictable misinterpretation of the pope’s words. And in the Church, as in all human institutions, such judgments inescapably involve not only competence, but morals.

Jesus did not prohibit making decisions about such matters because it’s a sheer impossibility. We can’t help judging, for instance, that a child abuser or wife beater or crooked politician is doing “wrong” in earthly terms – whatever it may say about the state of a person’s soul. In fact, it would be wrong not to view them as doing something wrong. It would be an abdication of our moral sense as human beings. Can anyone who is not morally blind not make such judgments?

And yet, prominent churchmen defend such absurdities. Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, grew notably agitated in Atlanta recently when he was asked whether Marko Rupnik’s artwork – artwork linked with the blasphemous sexual perversions he visited on more than two dozen women religious – should be removed: “Well, I think you’re wrong. I think you are wrong. I really think you are wrong.” He added, of course: “Who am I to judge the Rupnik stories?” (Who asked you to?) “As Christian(s), we are asked not to judge. . . . [such removals are] not a Christian response.”Really? Ruffini doesn’t seem aware that his own (thrice-expressed) judgment that calling for such removals is “wrong” and “non-Christian” stands in logical contradiction with his blanket condemnation of judging. In this, he’s sadly following the example of his boss, who also often speaks of not-judging, but tirelessly condemns – from a distance – the rigid, the backwardists, seminarians who like a bit of finery, TLM lovers, opponents of increased immigration, etc.

On the specific question of removing Rupnik’s art, decisions are probably best left to authorities who can take local conditions into account where Rupnik’s art is displayed. But Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, rightly called last week for the Vatican at least to stop using Rupnik’s artwork on its website and publications. The Church still has, to put it mildly, a bad reputation on sexual abuse. It owes it to victims everywhere to take every possible measure to show how serious it regards Rupnik’s abuse and blasphemy.

But let us not stop in our examination of questions about “judging” at these merely earthly matters because there is a greater, indeed eternal, game afoot.

At an event commemorating victims of the mafia, also early in his papacy, Pope Francis spoke out boldly and rightly about ultimate matters: “Men and women of the Mafia, please change your lives, convert, stop doing evil. . . .The power, the money you have now from so many dirty deals, from so many Mafia crimes, blood-stained money, blood-stained power – you will not be able to take that with you to the other life. . . .There is still time not to end up in hell, which awaits you if you continue on this road.”

These words are particularly worth citing because the minimalist position about “not judging” is often that, whatever other judgments we may have to make, we shouldn’t judge whether people are going to Hell. But some do, maybe even – as the Church has long believed – many. Francis rightly made this judgment conditional: If you don’t repent, then you will be damned. But he clearly stated what may happen when the Lord comes to judge the living and the dead.

It’s an easy call about the mafia. But very few people are Mafiosi. Jesus, the great saints and spiritual writers, and most modern popes have warned against deceiving ourselves that, because we’re not moral monsters, we are not also in danger. We need to be careful about judging others, yes, but still more vigilant about ourselves.

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AUTHOR

Robert Royal

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.

RELATED ARTICLE: A Biblical Response to Rejection

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