Yes, It Can Be Wrong To Be Judgemental

The changes in the liturgy since Vatican II are so striking that many of my lapsed-Catholic friends who recently have started to attend Mass again after many years feel it is no longer the same Church. For one, the content of homilies has changed radically since the Second Vatican Council: hardly any mention of hell, mortal sin, impurity, or God’s judgment after death. Some priests would even have us believe that the seven capital sins are no longer that “capital,” and that to censure those who sin against the sixth commandment’s prohibition of sexual relations is to be judgmental. In fact, in addition to sexism, there seems to be only one paramount sin constantly condemned today from pulpits and elsewhere: judgmentalism, the sin of taking a moral stand on someone else’s behavior.

For a politician, especially a socially conservative one, judgmentalism is a moral sin. Take, for instance, the recent controversy over President George W. Bush’s nomination of former senator John D. Ashcroft, an evangelical Christian and abortion opponent, as attorney general. Liberals bitter over what they deemed to be Bush’s “illegitimate” presidency attacked Ashcroft for his “extremism” and “rigidity” on all fronts: He was accused of being too far on the religious right, of plotting to overturn Roe v. Wade, and even of being “too racially insensitive” to be able to serve the nation’s African Americans. In a fit of judgmentalism themselves, the liberals made Ashcroft out to be overly judgmental.

Despite these annoying condemnations of judgmentalism in the name of political correctness, it is in fact a real sin. Christ said, “Do not judge and you shall not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). It is a passage that should be meditated on daily, for all of us are constantly tempted to make ourselves judges of our neighbors. The parable of the Pharisee and the publican comes to mind, in which the Pharisee thanks God for not being a sinner like the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The danger of judging others is rampant in the human soul, and there is no doubt that most of us have passed unfounded and unjust judgments on others.

God is the absolute judge. He alone knows all the motives for someone’s actions. Nonetheless, true as it is that no one can pass a final judgment on anyone else, it is also true that we can definitely know that certain actions are evil—stealing, adultery, and murder, to name a few. The commandments of God are crystal-clear and can be misread only by those who have eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear.

A strange phenomenon is gaining currency today. On the one hand, we are repeatedly reminded that we should not judge. On the other, there is a widespread tendency to pass judgment on persons whose motives we do not know and cannot possibly know, in cases in which motivation is the crucial factor.

Doing Our Duty

Our duty in life is clear: We are never permitted to break God’s commandments. But there are innumerable situations in which a person faces two alternatives and must choose between them: act or not act; speak or not speak. In both cases, harmful consequences may result, consequences that are not foreseeable because they are based on contingencies and because we cannot read the future. In such cases, our consciences must determine what we believe to be the better course of action. But our consciences must be rightly formed, guided, and enlightened.

If a woman’s conscience tells her that in her case it is legitimate to abort her child, her conscience is misguided. Abortion is a moral evil at all times, in all places, under all circumstances; it is intrinsece malum (intrinsically wrong), for it violates an absolute veto. “Thou shalt not murder” is rooted in the natural law. The Catholic Church opposes abortion because it is intrinsically evil, not because it happens to be a Catholic belief. No good intention can ever redeem the immorality of an act that is absolutely vetoed. These acts offend God and are always to be avoided. Nothing can ever excuse them. The only possible “good intention” is to follow the dictates of moral law.

Moral theologians may argue that if someone kills another out of pity for his unbearable suffering, that act—while intrinsically evil—is less evil than a murder in cold blood prompted by hatred or revenge. However, that act of euthanasia can never become “good.” An evil intention, on the other hand, can totally corrode the moral goodness of a good act. For example, to help another financially in order to enslave and dominate him is morally evil, even though it temporarily benefits the person in need. In other words, even when someone acts morally well, we are not in a position to ascertain that the actor is a good person. Politicians are experts at defending just causes when they happen to benefit them; but once the wind turns, they often change colors like chameleons.

The fashionable slogan “Follow your conscience?’ while accurate, is nevertheless open to grave misunderstanding because our consciences must be rightly formed and educated. Omnis homo mendax (Every man is a liar), and we are talented at coaxing our consciences into accepting views directly opposed to the natural law and God’s commandments. (Soren Kierkegaard masterfully analyzed this doubtful talent in his Sickness Unto Death and Attacks on Christendom.) A conscience whose decisions run counter to the teaching of the Church and absolute moral law is deformed.

There are many cases in which two alternative actions can lead to harmful consequences, but we must choose one of them. In these cases, conscience rules because neither the Church nor the natural law has ready-made answers to such conundrums. Someone facing such a situation and anxious to do God’s will will base his decision on prayer and the advice of wise and competent spiritual directors. He will examine all the pros and cons with fear and trembling and will make his decision in front of God, saying to Him, “Lord, I believe this to be the wiser and better course of action; please bless my intentions, and if my decision happens to be an unwise one, You are all-powerful and can remedy any harm that I have unwittingly clone.” As St. Augustine put it, God can draw good out of evil.

The Judgmentalism Dilemma

I know a woman who sings in church on Sundays. Not only does she sing off-tune, but her performance is pitiful by any musical standard, and terribly distracting and annoying for her fellow parishioners who are not tone-deaf. Should someone tell her to refrain from performing? To do so would benefit the whole congregation but likely would crush the singer, who seems convinced she has great talent and has probably been told so. One feels that she enjoys her singing, which combines sentimentality and bad taste.

Most people rate themselves according to their accomplishments in spheres in which they believe themselves to be talented. No doubt many of them live in an illusion, but to break this illusion is likely to crush them and destroy them psychologically. There are people who are threatened by a nervous breakdown if they are told that they are “failures:’ Only those blessed with the virtue of humility can accept defeat and change it into a resounding victory. Which is more important: to liberate a whole congregation from a distracting annoyance, or to let someone continue to live in the illusion that she is a great singer, for fear of wounding her feelings? The parish priest has opted for the second alternative. Is he right?

Professors sometimes face a similar dilemma. Some students may fall in love with a field because their teacher has succeeded in making it lively and challenging. But unfortunately, their intellectual talents may be no match for their enthusiasm. What is the professor to do if one of these students turns to him for advice? Should the student devote his life to a field of study in which he is not qualified? Sometimes a solution can be found. For example, a professor may discourage a student from going to graduate school by reminding him that an academic career may not be an advisable way to support a family. But those efforts don’t always work, and it is very unloving to encourage someone (however tacitly) to devote his life to a field in which he is bound to fail.

In her autobiography, St. Edith Stein mentions such a case from her own academic life. She begged a philosophy professor who was annoyed by one of his students’ lack of talent not to tell the student bluntly that he should stop his philosophy studies altogether. She was afraid it would destroy the student psychologically. Was it wise of her to do so?

Psychologists often face terrible problems of a similar nature. Should they tell a child that his father raped his mother? (Let us recall the terrible crisis that Kierkegaard went through upon discovering the sinfulness of his father—a man whom he considered to be of perfect moral integrity.) Should a parent tell a child that he is adopted? There are times when this seems desirable, but there are also times when such revelations can have disastrous psychological effects.

A friend of mine accidentally found out when she was in her early 20s that the man she believed to be her father was actually her grandfather. The discovery was a terrible blow. Thanks to her faith and courage, she recovered, but she no doubt went through a severe crisis. I personally do not believe there is an ideal solution that applies to all these difficult cases. All that one can do is pray, ask for advice, and use one’s reason and experience.

We Should Not Pass Judgment

To my great surprise, a pious friend of mine recently criticized the decision that St. Jane Frances de Chantal made to found a religious congregation with St. Francis de Sales. My friend’s objection rested on the fact that de Chantal at the time had four young children (the oldest was a teenager). No one can question the love and attachment she had for her 14-year-old son, Celse-Benigne, and her three daughters. She was a most devoted and loving mother. She was under the guidance of Francis de Sales, however, and her plan to start a religious order matured over several years of prayers. It was the antipode of a rash and impulsive decision.

Like Abraham in the Bible, de Chantal believed that she had to “sacrifice” Celse to obey a divine command. The sacrifice asked of her was heartbreaking. But Celse could be entrusted to his maternal grandfather, and Marie Aimee, de Chantal’s eldest daughter, happened to be engaged to a younger brother of Francis. So the marriage was performed (although not consummated just then), and according to French tradition, the teenage bride went to live with her mother-in-law. Charlotte died very suddenly; only Francoise accompanied her mother to the convent where she was then educated.

De Chantal thus cared for her family in the most loving and conscientious way. The Calvary of leaving her home was aggravated by the fact that, at the moment of departure, Celse prostrated himself on the threshold of the house, making it clear that for her to leave, she had to walk over his body. She did, and the adieux was heartbreaking. In spite of the fact that Francis de Sales supported her decision, de Chantal was tortured for weeks by the step she had taken. Francis de Sales had to use all his wisdom to comfort her over and over before she regained her peace.

To me, it is obvious that in these extraordinary situations (not every widow is called to start a religious order), the conscience of the person receiving a unique calling is to determine what the proper course of action is to be. Again, when I say conscience, I mean a conscience properly formed by the teaching of the Church and guided by a wise spiritual director profoundly rooted in the desire to do God’s will. These are cases in which it is morally reprehensible to pass judgment on someone’s decision. He, and he alone, acquainted with all the factors, knows his motivation. This is why God alone can pass judgment on such cases.

Had de Chantal chosen to remain with her children instead of founding an order, those inclined to pass judgment on others might still find plenty about which to criticize her: They might quote, for example, the gospel passage, “He who loves father and mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.” There is no escape from criticism from those who find a particular glee in frowning on others.

This leads me to some reflections on the recent controversy over Pope Pius XII. In spite of the fact that, after World War II, Golda Meier and other world leaders expressed their admiration and gratitude for what this great and much- maligned pontiff had done to save the lives of Jews, now the fashion of the day is to call him “Hitler’s Pope”—a most shameful title coined by John Cornwell in his recent book. Millions of uninformed people, brainwashed by the news media, assume that he was in fact endorsing the abominable political views of a criminal who was head of the German state. Fair-minded historians will surely revoke this slander of colossal proportions in the future, but in the meantime, this great and noble pontiff has been defamed to such an extent that his canonization has been put on hold.

Had Pius XII spoken out publicly against the Nazis, and had the persecutions of the Jews increased as a result, the enemies of this saintly pontiff would have had a field day saying that he spoke knowing it would harm them. In fairness and justice, we can assume that Pius XII agonized over his decision, that he spent endless hours praying for help and guidance from above, that he asked the advice of those best informed, and that he then confided this dramatic situation into the hands of the all-loving and all-powerful One. In his case, silence was not only a charitable act but a duty.

It is ironic that in a time when no one is allowed to condemn abortion and sexual perversions without being accused of being judgmental, some historians dare condemn the prudential judgment of a holy man who followed his conscience. Thank God that he is safe from their attacks and probably prays for those who defame his name. In such cases, the words of Christ truly apply: “Do not judge, and you shall not be judged.”


  • Alice von Hildebrand

    Alice von Hildebrand is professor emerita of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the renowned author of many books, including The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius, 2000), The Privilege of Being a Woman (Veritas, 2002), and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Sapientia, 2010).

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