Few verses in Scripture have been cited by contemporary culture as commonly as Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you may not be judged” (RSV). This excerpt has been used by non-Christians to beleaguer those standing up for the “big five” non-negotiables of the Catholic Church (abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and same-sex marriage), as well as countless other behaviors at odds with traditional morality.
Relativism dictates the notion that no objective truth exists. Thus any value judgment is valid only within the individual sphere. Pope Benedict XVI publicly identified relativism as a key issue of our times, shortly before assuming the papal office in 2005: “We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”
The antithesis to relativism is the acceptance of the absolute standard of the natural moral law, acknowledged in all cultures throughout all ages before the Enlightenment. C. S. Lewis cites a number of moral principles from diverse sources in the appendix of his notable work on the subject, “The Abolition of Man”. The diversity of these references emphasizes the universality of this standard. It is because all humans are created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) that we are endowed with this standard, fallen though our nature may be. As Lewis points out, all attempts to deny or reject such a standard lead to a diminishing of our humanity, a greater distancing from our natural fulfillment, and are thus done to our peril.
So if the standard exists, under what circumstances should it be used for judgment? A careful reading of the context of Jesus’ admonition reveals a reference to rash judgment, not judgment in general. “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas is helpful in bringing perspective to the issue. In II, 60, 2, he states that a moral judgment must be an act of justice. Three conditions must be met to achieve this.
First, it must proceed from the inclination of justice. The motive must be to achieve justice, purely out of love for justice. The primary motivation for the passing of judgment must be to rebalance the scales of justice in the absence of any influence toward partiality. Moral order must be restored by giving to each party their due, in act or in intention.
Second, the judge must be an authority on the matter. They must bear responsibility for a proper attitude toward the moral matter in two ways. They must have a full understanding for the moral implications inherent in personal choices pertaining to the matter. They must also demonstrate the carrying out of the correct moral course in their own lives, both in their personal choices and in their admonitions toward others. The judgment must be made in act for those in authority over the dissenter, and in intention for those in authority over others and over their own moral development.
Finally, the judgment must be made through the right ruling of prudence. There must be sufficient evidence that an outward moral violation had in fact been made, as opposed to the perception of mere motives. Rash judgments, based on suspicions rather than evidence, fall under the category of judgments that do not meet this standard.
A chief shortcoming of the modern age is a timidity or common unwillingness to judge. Judgment is indeed a natural step in the cognitive process, comparing an outward behavior to an internal system of values. J. Budziszewski points out in his book “The Line Through the Heart” (a worthwhile read) that those of our age who would refrain from passing judgment and demand that others do the same only feign neutrality by clever means, judging without appearing to judge. Jesus states in Matthew 12:30 that “whoever is not with me is against me”, which may be taken to mean there can be no neutrality in matters of moral judgment. Judgment is an essential part of what Dietrich von Hildebrand terms the “value-response”, the personal response demanded of an observer by a morally charged situation.
Moral judgment is a fearful thing. Many a young person refrains from fully enacting their inclinations in a given situation out of concern for the opinions of their peers, each of whom holds their own standard for acceptance. Moral judgment is weighted all the more by the universality of the standard. Inherent in the measurement against this standard is the possibility that an individual will “miss the mark” due to free choice of the will. Without this possibility, judgment would serve no purpose.
No human person in history, save Jesus and a select few of his saints, have been able to judge a person as a whole, since it would require a complete examination of the soul which cannot be done without the light of grace. However, one’s external acts and choices demand this “sizing up” by those who are responsible in part for the fulfillment of their humanity and that of those around them, as explained by Aquinas above. Authority rests not only in these, but also in parents whose children witness a morally charged act, who bear the responsibility of helping their children grow in the knowledge of right and wrong. It also rests in each one of us in the development and maintenance of a well-formed conscience.
As long as a given outward act clearly communicates a moral choice, as long as we are responsible in some way for moral formation in ourselves and/or others, and as long as the standard used comes from God, not us, we bear the responsibility to sanction or condemn such an act. It is in part through these judgments that a conscience is formed. Without a well-formed conscience, human fulfillment is impossible.