St. John teaches us in his first epistle, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” This is a basic, fundamental truth that all of us should bear in mind every day. Every person, whether they are Catholic or not, is a sinner. There is not even one of us who, whether we proudly label ourselves as faithful Catholics or true Americans or any other such label, is without sin daily. As Proverbs teaches, “the righteous man falls seven times a day.” We must be convinced of this basic truth. Without the grace of God, none of us can be saved. We all stand condemned by the strict judgment of God according to the law. If any Catholic thinks that they do not sin, then they should never step into a confessional again because they better already be living perfectly according to God’s law. And if anyone claims that they are living perfectly according to God’s law, then we know, based on the Word of God, that they are either lying or they are making God a liar, and we know that God does not lie.
Acknowledging ourselves as sinners requires humility. Whenever we make an act of contrition in confession, we are likewise making an act of humility. We acknowledge that we have failed grievously to live according to God’s law and that we depend upon the grace of God for our salvation. As St. Paul teaches, the law itself is holy and it reveals our sinfulness to us. Yet we cannot be saved from our sinfulness by means of the law alone, but only by the grace of Christ accepted by faith. In this way, our act of contrition is also an act of faith in the efficacy of God’s grace and it is an act of hope in God’s power to perfect His work in us. Then, in making a firm purpose of amendment, we express our commitment to cooperate with His grace primarily by seeking to love God through loving our neighbor, “faith working through love”. We love our neighbor primarily by extending the mercy of God to our neighbor. As we pray in the Our Father, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus himself recommends showing mercy to others in the form of giving alms to those in need. When we love our neighbor by giving alms, Jesus says that we are made inwardly clean (cf. Luke 11:42).
Knowing that we are sinners in need of God’s grace and that we fall under judgment ourselves, St. Paul thus explains to the Romans and to us that no one is justified in passing judgment on others. As St. Paul says (Rom. 2:1), “Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things.” If we tend to look down upon others who commit certain sins that we ourselves commit or if we see others as being worse sinners than ourselves, then we are setting ourselves up as judges over others. It would be wise to be very hesitant about judging the sins of others and condemning others lest we ourselves fall under the judgment and condemnation of God. Remember what Jesus says to the men who wanted to stone an adulteress in the street: “Let he who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). I think many of us often commit the sin of rash judgment without even realizing it. It’s important to address this sin because it constitutes grave matter and should be confessed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation if we are honest with ourselves and are aware of having committed it.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church para. 2477, the sin of rash judgment falls under the category of having respect for the reputation of persons. There are three sins listed in this paragraph. It says, “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; of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them; of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.” All these sins (rash judgment, detraction, and calumny) constitute grave matter. If we commit them with sufficient knowledge and full consent of the will, barring any extenuating circumstances that reduce subjective culpability, then we will have committed a mortal sin, which cuts us off from the life of sanctifying grace and charity. These sins are that serious.
Hence, we should do everything in our power to avoid coming even close to committing these sins against the virtue of charity. The Catechism suggests how we might do so in para. 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.” The Catechism then goes on to share advice from St. Ignatius of Loyola, who says: “Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.” In other words, we are not to judge others based merely on our own gut feelings or visceral reactions but rather based on objective facts and critical thinking and reasoning. We are to extend this charity not only to people with whom we associate on a regular basis but also to those whom we do not know personally, such as celebrities, newscasters, politicians, church officials, and anyone else who regularly appears in the news cycle. We do not know most of these people personally, yet we often do not hesitate in hurling judgments and condemnations towards them. If we try to justify ourselves by telling ourselves that they deserve it, then we would also have to admit that we likewise deserve judgment and condemnation.
If someone who we do not know says or does something that we don’t like, it would be wise to follow the advice in the Catechism on avoiding rash judgment by interpreting their thoughts, words, and actions in a favorable way insofar as possible. If we find ourselves wondering whether we have enough information to make a judgment, then we should automatically conclude that we do not have enough information. If we do not know the person personally, then we cannot speak to them about what they have said or done. Hence, we should avoid gossiping behind their backs or speaking critically about them to others. This does not mean that evil or injustice cannot be opposed, but our opposition to injustice should not lead to judge or condemn persons. The person, even when corrected, should sense that we love them and do not condemn them. Harshness and an attitude of condemnation do not convey God’s love and mercy. We Catholics should all put on the mind of Christ who came not to condemn the world, but to save the world from sin. God wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. We ought to have a keen awareness of our own sinfulness and of our need of salvation so that we might be grateful when God shows us His love, mercy, and grace especially through the sacraments. Having been made beneficiaries of the grace of God and our sins forgiven, we should then become conduits of His love and mercy for others.
– Fr. Matthew Mary, MFVA