There cannot be many Remnant readers who have not been accused of being “judgmental,” or solemnly instructed that Our Lord told us not to “judge” others. To be sure, most people who make such a charge would be hard pressed to name the four Gospels, but they nevertheless feel confident in making dogmatic statements on matters they know nothing about.
I happened to be watching some news reporting in the days before the most recent elections, and heard that Mark Pryor, the Democratic State Attorney General in Arkansas, was liable to defeat Republican incumbent Tim Hutchinson in the race for U.S. Senate because of voter disgust at Hutchinson’s divorce. (I didn’t realize how much of the old America could still be found out there, albeit in isolated patches.)
One woman interviewed by CNN, however, said that it wouldn’t be right for voters to “judge” Sen. Hutchinson, since, after all, he’d been a good senator.
Whether Hutchinson had been a good senator is immaterial for my purposes; what shocked both my wife and me was the suggestion that it would be morally wrong simply to judge a man’s divorce morally wrong.
This position is completely nonsensical for a variety of reasons, among which is this: isn’t someone who condemns me for “judging” others rendering a judgment himself, and therefore guilty of the very crime of which he accuses me?
According to what for lack of a better word I shall call the nonjudgmentalists, despite the fact that Our Lord repeatedly emphasized the consequences of sin, spoke of moral absolutes binding on all men, and exhorted men to choose good over evil, He also wanted us to be sure never to refer to any of these commands when evaluating the actions of other people. That this position makes no sense at all does nothing to stop its advocates from advancing it.
Matthew 7:1 is the verse cited most often in this context, for it is there that Our Lord says: “Judge not, that you may not be judged.”
But consider what He says in the next several verses (Mt. 7:2-5):
For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why seest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye; and seest not the beam that is in thy own eye? Or how sayest thou to thy brother: Let me cast the mote out of thy eye; and behold a beam is in thy own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thy own eye, and then shalt thou see to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
These additional words make clear how, precisely, we are not to judge – and, conversely, the conditions under which we may render a just judgment. Christ makes clear that it is hypocritical judgment that He condemns. But once one has cast the beam out of his own eye, then according to Our Lord he will be able to cast the mote out of his brother’s eye. Moreover, in His reminder that “with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again,” Christ warns us of hasty or uncharitable judgment that makes no room for understanding or compassion, lest we ourselves be subject to analogously harsh judgment at the end of our earthly existence. In Can’t We Make Moral Judgments? (1993), a prominent British philosopher observes that Christ here makes the “subtle point that while we cannot possibly avoid judging, we can see to it that we judge fairly, as we would expect others to do to us.”
Hypocritical judgment is indeed to be condemned, for obvious reasons, as is uncharitable judgment. We cannot know whether all the criteria by which an action becomes a mortal sin have been met, since subjective awareness of the wrong on the part of the person concerned is not something we can know with certainty. God alone can know what is in the human heart, and He alone can know the degree of culpability accruing to a wrongdoer.
Likewise, it would be wrong for us to assume the worst about everyone associated with the Novus Ordo establishment – that they prefer laxity to moral seriousness, that they hold Tradition in contempt, or that they wish to do the Church harm. In many cases, they honestly don’t know any better. Surely there are among us those who came to the traditionalist cause later rather than sooner, only gradually having come to realize the depth of the crisis, or even that some alternative was actually available.
But the fact is, moral judgment is unavoidable. Our “nonjudgmental” society renders moral judgments all the time – in favor of feminism, egalitarianism, and multiculturalism. These “judgments,” apparently, are quite all right. Less controversially, society renders moral judgments on a daily basis in our courts of law. This is why we have judges. Is a judge being “judgmental” when he sternly lectures a hardened killer?
It might be objected that of course we may render judgments in cases in which other people are harmed, as when we express our moral revulsion at a thief or a murderer. But when people behave in a way that we find morally objectionable but which does no physical harm to anyone else, it is then that we ought not to “judge” their behavior.
First of all, this distinction finds no support in Scripture. If the nonjudgmental crowd is right – that moral judgment is per se wrong – then it is no more acceptable to “judge” Stalin and Hitler than it is to criticize a cohabiting couple. If moral judgment is disallowed in the latter case because it would amount to “judging” the people involved, then it must be equally inadmissible in the former. The logic of nonjudgmentalism ultimately leaves us unilaterally disarmed before the worst moral evil, since to call mass murder evil requires that we believe in absolute moral standards that apply to everyone at all times. It is this premise that nonjudgmentalism rejects. In such a moral universe, one man’s crime against nature becomes another’s lifestyle choice.
Second, plenty of activity that does not cause physical harm to anyone can nevertheless have terrible consequences for innocent third parties – one need only consider the effects of heavy drug use on an addict’s family, the effects of divorce on children, and others besides. Speaking about a couple who had recently had a child out of wedlock, someone recently told me that while that was not something he would have done, he would not stand in judgment of them. The implication was that this was their private decision, and that since it did not harm anyone else, it was not his place to render a moral judgment. But the couple’s course of action will certainly harm that child, who will learn that lifelong commitment is optional and the beautiful devotion of husband to wife ultimately dispensable. Perhaps more disturbing, he will have to reckon with the fact that his own parents did not consider his welfare important enough to justify sealing their relationship with a permanent, sacramental bond.
Let’s face it: in the great majority of cases, the issues on which people bleat hysterically that moral judgment is inadmissible nearly always revolve around some aspect of human intimacy: premarital sex, homosexuality, divorce, abortion, and the like. It is as if, aware of their own vulnerability, nonjudgmentalists hope to shut down all moral evaluation by intimating that by “judging” them, Christians would be guilty of an even greater sin than the one they were criticizing.
The selective way in which the liberal invokes the alleged prohibition on rendering moral judgment gives the game away. Never having watched her program, I have nevertheless seen parodies of Ricki Lake, which seem realistic enough, in which she boasts, “We don’t judge people on this show.” Yet I strongly suspect that she’d forget all about her opposition to “judging” if her program featured, say, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Shortly after British actor Hugh Grant was arrested for solicitation, he appeared on David Letterman’s program, where America was told that people needed to lighten up and leave the poor guy alone. Suppose, on the other hand, he’d made a racial joke. We’d never hear from him again, and none of our self-appointed cultural betters would reproach themselves for having “judged” him.
In his dystopian novel Brave New World (1932), author Aldous Huxley describes a society in which the marriage act has been deliberately and systematically reduced to the status of just another activity, to which no particular meaning ought to be attached. No one in his right mind would want to live in the society that Huxley describes, yet we move toward something like it, by degrees, every day. There is an inescapable connection between how we treat the means by which human life is transmitted and how we treat human life itself. It can hardly be a coincidence that in our pornography-saturated culture, we hear every day about some of the most grisly and grotesque crimes of violence imaginable.
Anything that makes of human intimacy a matter of human contrivance, whereby man himself endows sexual relations with what meaning they possess, rather than recognizing them as possessing a meaning and purpose fixed in nature, independent of his will – that is to say, anything that moves us closer to the dehumanized society of enslaved automatons described in Huxley’s novel – is evil, and ought to be identified as such. Whenever it is argued that the traditional family is an arbitrary construct to be set aside at whim, or that human intimacy is a matter of “preference” or “orientation” for each individual to work out and pursue in his own way according to his inclinations, we move one step closer to a world in which human beings are viewed as mere vehicles for gratification. And when human beings debase themselves to the level of mere beasts, it can only be a matter of time before they begin treating each other accordingly.
At all times, but especially when the stakes are as high as they are today, a responsible moral actor must be prepared to make sound judgments, even if the very act of judging violates the nonjudgmentalists’ definition of “toleration.” Mere toleration, G.K. Chesterton once said, is “the virtue of men who no longer believe in anything.” Dorothy Sayers, going a bit further, observed: “Toleration is the accomplice of other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.”
By criticizing the abstract principle of toleration, I do not mean to suggest that we ought to knock over the head anyone with whom we disagree. I mean that toleration – which is, after all, a mere procedure, empty of substantive content – cannot be a complete philosophy of life. Our toleration ought to be of the sort that Cardinal Newman recommended. A non-Catholic had suggested that the two of them ought simply to live and let live: “You worship God in your way and I shall worship Him in mine.” To which Newman replied, in effect, “You worship God in your way and I shall worship Him in His.”
In his classic Ideas Have Consequences (1948), Richard Weaver wrote: “For four centuries every man has been not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.” This is where we are now, each of us in his own moral universe, and everyone terrified to appear insensitive or unenlightened by suggesting that moral principles might be more than a matter of utility, sentiment, or personal preference.
We are dealing here with moral questions of the most profound importance, that touch upon some of the most intimate aspects of human identity. Anyone who can look them in the face and refuse to take a stand, concerned that to do so would amount to being “judgmental,” has raised the white flag, offering an unconditional surrender in the battle for civilization.
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