Is it a sin to be judgmental?

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn and will not be condemned.” Is our Lord demanding that his followers become naive? And while he is not a “Thomist” who makes distinctions but a divine-human who expressed himself with a Semitic mind frame of reference, further distinctions have to be made in light of revelation to understand the Lord correctly.

Too often many Catholics going to the sacrament of Penance confess that they have been judgmental. But what does this statement not mean? If a daughter is contemplating an abortion, a grave injustice is being committed on an innocent human being. If she tells her parents her desires, they are obliged to persuade her against committing this grave offense to God. They cannot say, “We do not judge you. Go and follow your conscience.” Likewise, if a son rapes a girl in college, his parents cannot say,”We love you as you are rapist and all. We will not judge you.” Or, if another son lives with his girl friend, parents cannot pretend to say, “We know what you are doing is wrong, but we will not judge you.” In these three cases, intrinsically moral evil actions are about to exist, have already been accomplished or are being committed. These young people are seeking happiness on their own terms and objectively violating God’s wise commandments. It is not loving to pretend that these loved ones are not doing grave evil and refrain from correcting them. Indignation is a virtue and becoming upset with loved ones is also a manifestation of love for their persons since moral evil goes great harm to their persons and others. Without such a feeling of repulsion, nothing will be said and done.

Actions can be judged negatively when it is evident that the actions are manifestly wrong. If I slap someone in the face, that may be an major or minor insult or I may be killing a poisonous spider on someone’s face (a virtue). Some human acts are not always as clearly known but slashing someone’s tires in a fit of anger is clearly wrong unless I am a policeman and have solid reason to know there are drugs inside them. Only a fool would not judge what really happens when it is clear and evident.

However, it is never evident if a subjective sin has been committed because defects of the intellect and will may interfere with freedom. Moreover one may be under a constraint from an outside source like a bank teller who willingly hands over money to a robber lest he be killed. A judge has to condemn a person to prison after a guilty verdict in a trial has been handed down by a jury.

We can never know immediately with absolute certitude the state of someone else’s soul. He may reveal it to us or there may be consequences of doing evil acts that lead one to know with only moral certitude that at the time, moral evil was done but not the loss of grace. Moreover, no one can ever know the depth of another’s guilt nor ever know if repentance is true and sincere in another. Between objectively evil actions done in the external forum and subjective imputability, our knowledge of the former may be clear but not the latter. St. Thomas Aquinas has some light to guide us in this matter with his treatment judging someone in his Summa Theologiae, (II-II 60, 3 & 4).

Thomas poses a question: Whether it is unlawful to form a judgment from suspicions?

He begins his answer from a citation of St. John Chrysostom: “By this commandment our Lord does not forbid Christians to reprove others from kindly motives, but [does forbid ] that a Christian should despise another Christian by boasting his own righteousness, by hating and condemning others for the most part on mere suspicion.”

He then goes on to say that there are three causes of rashly thinking evil of others: first projecting one’s own faults onto another’s action, second, envy or anger at another, “he is led by slight indications to think evil of him, because everyone easily believes what he desires,” and third from experience of old age. These problems lead one to either doubt another’s goodness on slight indications or develop a fixed certitude of a person on slight indications. Thomas goes on to cite another author “If then we cannot avoid suspicions, because we are human, we must nevertheless restrain our judgment, and refrain from forming a definite and fixed opinion.” Mortal sin can be committed if we judge another as evil from slight indications and have contempt for him or her. Like lust, one can commit the sin of contempt by these kinds of thoughts and desires.

In article 4, Thomas raises a further question: Whether doubts should be interpreted for the best?

He answers:

…[F]rom the very fact that a man thinks ill of another without sufficient cause, he injures and despises him. Now no man ought to despise or in any way injure another man without urgent cause: and, consequently, unless we have evident indications of a person’s wickedness, we ought to deem him good, by interpreting for the best whatever is doubtful about him.

He then also offers some very wise advice:

He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former (ad 1).

He further cautions against harsh judgments leading to contempt of person:

…[W]e ought, in this kind of judgment, to aim at judging a man good, unless there is evident proof of the contrary. And though we may judge falsely, our judgment in thinking well of another pertains to our good feeling and not to the evil of the intellect, even as neither does it pertain to the intellect’s perfection to know the truth of contingent singulars in themselves (ad 3).

We can have contempt for evil doing because doing morally good acts with the right motives keep one united to God’s will who asks for them as a condition of being his friend. Rash judgments of a grave nature harm another potentially because they often lead to an act of injustice, namely contempt, much like deliberately lustful thoughts and desires often lead to fornication or adultery.

The Catechism sums it up:

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;

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:

It is evident then that a rash judgment is not the same as a reasonable judgment of another’s actions. In addition to having a benign judgment of people and assuming the best, tolerance and forgiveness are necessary qualities for human relationships. However fraternal correction and expressed indignation and outrage are necessary as well lest grave moral evil, which ultimately harms the doer and the common good of a society, becomes accepted as a good to be desired. Even today abortion is accepted as a false common good for the economic welfare of both individuals and society under the banner of a women’s rights due to indifference on the part of the many.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
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