Msgr. Charles Pope: How to Respond When People Say, ‘Who Am I to Judge?’

Daily Reading & Meditation: Wednesday (September 13)
September 13, 2017
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September 13, 2017

I am a watchman, a lover of souls, a guardian and one who has been commanded by Christ to speak to a brother who sins.

By Msgr. Charles Pope, National Catholic Register, 9/12/17

There was a rhetorical question posed a couple of years ago by a certain famous Catholic, and it was heard round the world. He said, “Who am I to judge?” And while the one who uttered it had his remarks taken out of context (he was speaking of a person with sinful and disordered tendencies who was living uprightly nonetheless), the world didn’t care. For a sinful, slothful world to hear a clergyman say, “Who am I to judge” is a cathartic victory. “Yes!” a jubilant but jaded world acclaims, “The mean, hateful judgmental Church has been tamed. All is well, all is opinion, no one has the right to ‘judge’ me!” Never mind that the very ones who shout “Judge Not” are enacting a moral law in the very act of banishing moral law; that they are making a judgment in the very act of forbidding judgment. Logic and rational consistency have not been necessary in times like these.

But the question “Who am I to judge?” is not merely or really a rhetorical question. It actually has an answer. In fact, it has many answers. Let look at some of them, especially in the light of last Sunday’s (23rd Sunday of the Year) focus on fraternal correction.

Who am I to Judge? I am a watchman. Scripture says,

Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand (Ez 3:17).

Thus I am commanded under pain of the loss of my own soul to correct the sinner. And this requires that I judge what is wrong from what is right according to the Lord’s teachings, and warn those who unrepentantly persist in or celebrate sin. If I fail to do as I am commanded, I become part of the problem and I will share in the penalty.

Who am I to Judge? I am a lover of souls, called to concern for the salvation of all. Scripture says, You shall not hate your brother in your heart: rather, you shall rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17).

Notice how this text equates a failure to correct the sinner with hating him. This is precisely the opposite of what many worldly people say when they equate any rebuking of sinful behavior with “hate speech.” But it is those who wink at sins who act hatefully and promote trouble for souls (see Proverbs 10:10).

St. Thomas sets forth fraternal correction as an act of charity, for to love is to will the good of the other. Being free of sin and on the road to salvation is good for the other.

This Levitical text reminds us that if we love others we cannot suffer sin to be upon them since sin promotes suffering, and endangers salvation. Scripture also says, Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins (James 5:19).

All this requires that I judge what is wrong from what is right according to the Lord’s teachings, and warn those who unrepentantly persist in or celebrate sin. And thus, I am a lover of souls who does not want to see others die in their sins.

St. Paul goes so far to command the community of Corinth in regard to a certain sinner: you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 5:1). In other words, they were to excommunicate him and thus expose him to the full effects of his sin. But note that this was not for vengeance, it was as a loving last effort to save his soul before the last judgment closes in.

Who am I to Judge? I am a guardian, called to protect the Church, my family and the world from wrongdoing. St. Paul warns that Bad company corrupts good morals (1 Cor 15:33) and that a little leaven (i.e., evil) leavens the whole lump (Gal 5:8).

Thus, in correcting the sinner we look not only to his or her good, but to the community and to the common good as well. Sinful and disorderly behavior is harmful to community. It not only brings suffering to the sinner and others affected by the sin, but it also gives scandal and may incite many unhealthy responses such as vengeance or hateful anger.

There are times when, after repeated correction fails, we must purge the sinful influence from the community for the sake of the community. St. Paul says, We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us (2 Thess 3:6). Here St. Paul seeks to preserve the community from disorder and heresy. He also declares: I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? (1 Cor 5:11).

These severer methods are sometimes necessary to reach a hardened sinner and also to protect the community. But once again, this requires some judgment on our part and that of the Church.

Who am I to Judge? I am one who has been commanded by Jesus to do so. Jesus says, If your brother sins, go and point out his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won him over. (Mat 18:15).

Note the clear mandate of the Lord to set others right. But once again this is not possible unless I first judge what is right from what is wrong based on the Lord’s teaching and, having observed wrongdoing or error, seek to correct it.

The Lord expects us to correct people we know and who are in sin. We ought to do it in humility and with love, but we are to do it. This is especially true if we are in a role of leadership or prominence; if we are a pastor, teacher, parent, or elder.

In all these senses, who are you not to judge?

There are certain judgments we cannot make. For example, I cannot judge that I am holier than you, or you are more holy than I. Scripture says, Man sees the appearance, but God looks into the heart (1 Sam 16:7). I cannot tell you if someone is in Hell. Only God can make that judgment. I am also forbidden the “judgment of condemnation” wherein I am unnecessarily harsh in punishments or conclusions. In this regard Jesus says, using the poetry of couplets: Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. (Luke 6:37). Indeed, the Lord further warns regard unnecessarily harsh judgments, For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. (Mat 7:2)

But none of this is a mandate to silence in the face of sin or wrongdoing. We must judge between good and evil and we cannot shirk our duties to correct error and rebuke sin in others. Who am I to judge in this regard? I am a watchman, a lover of souls, a guardian and one who has been commanded by Christ to speak to a brother who sins. And even as we are called to correct, we must be open to correction.

A final word from Paul, reminding us of our need to judge what is right from what is wrong and compassionately call to those lost in error and sin:

Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:1).