23rd Sunday – To Judge or Not to Judge?

Matt 18:15-20

Fra Angelico, Sermon on the Mount

Adele, the singer, has been all over the News and social media recently. She seems to have become the latest, but for sure not the last, victim of the woke generation and ‘cancel’ culture. Her crime seems to be that she decided to wear her hair using a particular African style that fateful morning; her picture, with her hair tied in ‘bantu knots’ soon became a trending topic on social media and even front page news in some papers. One user on Twitter declared that this proves all white women in pop were problematic: blind to the fact that to paint all people of a particular race as ‘problematic’ because of one person’s ‘crime’ would exactly fit the bill as racist. Another user called for her to be arrested with no parole: obviously, the most serious crime of our time. In a globalised culture, it is common for people in different cultures to try things across boundaries, be it, Western women wearing traditional Asian outfits at times, or those in the East adopting Western cultural practices and so on. It seems, Adele had posted this in the context of the Notting Hill Carnival (not happening this year), where people ‘dress up’. The only question, given the circumstances, seems to be why this even became a story, worthy of the papers. (I should say my only familiarity with Adele is from listening to some of her songs a few years ago, which I quite liked – I’m no fan-follower or detractor). The papers which featured the story, thankfully, did not all join in ‘cancelling’ her for her treacherous act. There seem to be a lot of people today, however, seemingly waiting to take offence – and often on other peoples’ behalf. 

            This episode highlights a strange discrepancy of our culture. One of the highest cultural virtues would be ‘non-judgmentalism’ and its sister virtue of ‘tolerance’. Everyone, it is said, has a right to their opinion and moralising of any sort would be an imposition of one’s own ethical views on another. It results in all kinds of ills for those on the receiving end of it. We have to accept, ‘tolerate’ everyone’s way of life. Or so, we are told. Except, it would seem that Adele has been judged left, right and center by the world, for a picture taken in her backyard. And these are usually the same people whom you would hear quoting some version of Matt 7:1, probably the most quoted verse in our generation: “Judge not and you will not be judged”. What sense can we make of this phenomenon?

Part of the problem is the lack of distinction between what particular judgments and universal judgments. The Ten Commandments, for example, are universal judgments. We are absolutely able to judge in terms of universals. To judge a particular situation, on the other hand, requires good understanding of the universal principle, knowledge of the situation at hand, and above all, charity – brought together in the virtue of wisdom

A great example of this in action is Pope Francis. He has frequently criticised gender ideologies, which consider people’s gender identities to be fluid. He has even characterised them as a doctrine of Hitler Youth, and compared the harm they do to nuclear weapons. But in 2016, he lovingly welcomed a transgender man to his Papal Office and spoke to the Press about how every case needed to be individually judged: welcomed, accompanied and helped, because ‘not…all are the same’. How can every case not be the same, when they are all instances of the same gender ideology? Even the Catholic Press seemed to get confused by the Pope’s actions. Far from being contradictory though, this is Christian judgment in action. There are absolute rights and wrongs. But a particular case before you – here, the situation of a person – calls for a judgment rooted in discernment and charity. The right response to a friend who is abusing alcohol might be a loving embrace in one instant; it might be a strong rebuke in another. Both could be equally good responses, depending on circumstances. Both are aiming for the good of the other, which is what love is. The different response in each case arises precisely from the same absolute judgment on the universal (alcohol abuse in this case).

Our relativistic culture, however has inverted this order. In what Pope Benedict kept citing as the dictatorship of relativism, people refuse to accept the authority of anyone, let alone the Church to make universal judgments. They produce the quickest, ‘Thou shalt not judge’, especially when it comes to absolute judgments related to sexual morality. To say taking drugs is wrong (universal) is considered akin to condemning drug addicts or burdening them with guilt (particular individuals). To say gay marriage is wrong (which is a judgment regarding marriage, a universal) is considered homophobic and against gay people (individuals). Because everything is relative, to believe in something Absolute is seen as imposing one’s views on another. But in refusing to adhere to an absolute system of value, everyone – particular cases – is now judged by everyone else, by their own standards. And the loudest (and sometimes ugliest), voices prevail. The judgments become arbitrary – and vicious – as Adele found out. 

I’ve not switched to writing a cultural commentary in lieu of my homilies. I mention all this only because this Sunday’s gospel gives us some very clear instructions on how, this judgment is to be carried out in particular cases. The gospel speaks about correcting a brother. What is presupposed here is a community – formed on Christ’s love. The offender is not a stranger, it is a person to whom one is committed to in relationship within the Church. Further, the offender has done something qualitatively wrong – possibly a serious wrong – against someone. This is not something where someone has just decided to take offense. In such a case, the easiest response, which we all resort to often, is to talk about it with others. In a small community, you can imagine, how quickly it can result in people being for and against this person, dividing it. Instead, the person is asked to sort it out, in secret, with the one causing offense – ideally, face to face. People might have experienced, such encounters – difficult as they may be, they have a high possibility of peaceful resolution. There is judgment here, but it’s based on these brethren living a common life of faith; there is an understanding (universals) on what it means to live a good and holy life.

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son

If that doesn’t work, you’re asked to escalate this very slowly – not announce it to the whole world on Twitter. Finally, the person is asked to be treated as a pagan if he does not repent – this is not a kind of vengeful ostracization. It is in the hope that this person will come to recognise that their actions are not in conformity with the life of the community to which they belong. That they will come to repent of their ways. It is all meant to be in a spirit of charity.

All this is the exact opposite of our social media wars. Here, people take offense whether an actual wrong has been committed or not. They are often offended on behalf of people who might actually not be offended. Having been offended, it is announced to the world about just how horrible this chosen offender is. A ‘community’ is now formed – those who share nothing in common, except being against the chosen offender. This is scapegoating; it thrives on hatred and most conspicuously absent in this is mercy. At the centre of this ‘community’ is the Satan, who is the ancient accuser (Rev 12:10).

We all make mistakes. Sometimes we can sin grievously. We have to know that we can be forgiven. On the Cross, Jesus cancelled our sins, as Paul says (Col 2:14) and released us from our guilt. This is the forgiveness, the Mercy of Christ kept alive in his body, the Church. It is in encountering this, both in the Sacrament of Confession and in each other, that we can be truly healed. As Pope Francis said in a homily:

“Christians are born from the forgiveness they receive in Baptism. They are always reborn from the same place: from the surprising forgiveness of God, from his mercy which restores us. Only by being forgiven can we set out again with fresh confidence, after having experienced the joy of being loved by the Father to the full. Only through God’s forgiveness do truly new things happen within us. Let us hear again words the Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, I am doing a new thing” (Is 43:19)….” (29th March 2019)

Maybe, pray today to experience anew the Mercy of Christ. And if you’ve been away, why not come back to the Sacrament of Confession?

8 Comments

  1. There are many areas in society where decisions could be made which are in conflict with the Ten Commandments and which could result in conflicts within families, not least in the provision of certain health care procedures and related life issues. Doctors in Canada have, in recent times, been forced to refer patients to willing doctors for such procedures. The Cardinal Archbishop of Toronto has repeatedly pressed for conscience protection for doctors without success.

    These issues have been complicated by the denial and rejection of Moral Absolutes by certain theologians but the Catholic tradition affirms the saving (or damning) significance of our daily deeds and of the free choices we make every day (Mt 19 : 17).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Fr, Lucy did make me laugh!

    Twitter can be troublesome for anyone with an opinion, even if it is something as simple as stating a favourite colour, the trolls are unforgiving. ‘Catholic’ twitter, is disturbing! So many obsessed with an idealised past instead of doing something to improv the present. As for those who comment on others, I always assume they have nothing to do, nor interests in life, because if they did, they’d be a bit more like Sally..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m so glad to have read this thank you. I’ve been trying to make sense of this issue of people confusing universal and particular judgements for some time. You explain it very well and it is really helpful to understand how descernment enables us to apply these two types of judgement wisely.

    Liked by 1 person

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