It is happening more and more frequently. As our cultural narrative becomes increasingly secular, Christians are consistently painted as bigots, discriminatory and judgmental. In response to a recent article I wrote asking for dialogue about same-sex “marriage,” I was called a “self-righteous bigot only pretending to want dialogue” (though the majority of people were gracious and civil). These accusations cannot help but sting, but are they just? Can we speak out about issues such as homosexual marriage, abortion and the like without being hateful and judgmental of those who participate in these acts?
Part of the conflict we may feel over expressing our Christian views publicly centers around a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word judgment. Judging is not necessarily good or bad. Properly defined, to judge means to form an opinion or conclusion about something. The distinction between making a necessary judgment and “being judgmental” is found in whether the judgment is directed at a person or at an action or situation.
In one of the better known passages of the Bible, Christ says “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). He goes on to teach us that we should not be hypocrites by pointing out the splinter in other people’s eyes before we remove the beam from our own.
Similarly, Pope Francis made international headlines when he tried to draw a distinction between someone who identifies as gay and someone who leads a gay lobby. Regarding a person who identifies as gay, Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will — well, who am I to judge him?” Note that Pope Francis did not say that homosexual acts are not sinful. Like Christ, he was talking about the judgment of a person – in this case, a person of good will who is seeking God.
The New American Bible commentary on Christ’s command to “Stop judging” says the following, “This is not a prohibition against recognizing the faults of others, which would be hardly compatible with Mt 7:5, but against passing judgment in a spirit of arrogance, forgetful of one’s own faults.” (Matthew 7:5 says that we can help remove our neighbor’s splinter after taking the beam out of our own eye). In other words, it is not a contradiction to avoid passing judgment on a person while still recognizing that there are things that are objectively sinful and outside of natural law and God’s Divine Plan.
In his foundational work The Religious Sense, theologian Monsignor Luigi Giussani writes of judgment in this way: “I refer to the urgent necessity not to give a more important role to a scheme already in our minds, but rather to cultivate an entire, passionate, insistent ability to observe the real event, the fact” (Ch. 4). Judgment, he posits, has to do with recognizing that there is a reality – a natural order – that exists, and from that reality, a discernible moral structure.
Giussani is critical of what he calls “the common mentality” that emerges from a reigning social order based on a particular agenda or consensus. Certainly the common mentality in our culture today holds that homosexual “marriage” is acceptable, abortion is a legitimate choice and contraception is a necessity. Anyone who does not hold these positions is considered judgmental. Misusing both Christ’s and Pope Francis’ words, many will challenge us saying, “Aren’t you Christians called not to judge?”
What these critics ignore, however, is the need to judge actions and situations based not on the common mentality or individual desires, but on observable realities. Monsignor Giussani writes, “We are certain that it is nature, and not some other ground, that enables this potential to judge according to the universal ideals of justice, truth, and happiness” (The Religious Sense, 10). We are meant to use our reason and our experience to discern the truth. When we say that abortion is killing an innocent child, we are not condemning the mother, but “judging” that abortion is objectively a certain definable action, which it is not unreasonable to further argue is thus an offense against the order of life established in nature. Similarly, when we judge that children are meant to have a mother and a father, we are merely deducing from the biological fact that each person is the offspring of one man and one woman, and that there is an order that flows from this reality. To make a judgment, in this context, is to speak the truth about actions and situations, not to condemn.
Making judgments about reality, while at the same time not acting as the judge of others’ souls, is an important distinction. It would be much easier to give in, to be considered loving and tolerant by society. Giussani affirms this saying, “It is inconvenient and personally demanding ―to face oneself, ―to go against the current, and ―to consider the totality of factors, such as the true apprehension of reality demands. We would rather look only at the evidence that confirms ―a scheme already in our minds” (The Religious Sense, 4).
Yet, Christianity is not always popular or easy to follow. As the adage goes, “Love the sinner, not the sin.” Christ is our prime example of making judgments, without being unduly judgmental. Think of when He faced an angry crowd surrounding an adulteress and told them that whoever among them who had not sinned should be the first to throw a stone. When the crowd dispersed without any stones cast, He told the accused that He did not judge her either, but he also said “Go and sin no more” (John 8). Christ loved the person in front of Him, but that did not keep Him from speaking the Truth about the need to avoid sin. We are called to do the same.
Caitlin Bootsma is the editor of Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum.Mrs. Bootsma received a Licentiate in Catholic Social Communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome as well as a Master’s of Systematic Theology from Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and two sons.