When conversation among Catholics turns to controversial moral issues, a debate often arises over what it means to be “judgmental.” When a person notes that certain behaviors are clearly against God’s will and involve grave sin, they are often told, “The Bible says we shouldn’t judge.”

Does Scripture truly teach that we must refrain from any moral evaluation of a particular behavior or way of life? For an answer to that question, let’s take a look at the biblical passages most often cited.

In the Gospel, Jesus says: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Mt 7:1). St. Paul also rebukes certain Christians with the question: “Why then do you judge your brother?” (Rom 14:10).

Nevertheless, in the Gospel we’re told that Jesus also commands us to “judge justly” (Jn 7:24), and on one occasion He asks His listeners, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” (Lk 12:57). For his part, Paul tells the Christians in Corinth, not only once, but twice, “Judge for yourselves” (1 Cor 10:15; 11:13).

Our Lord and St. Paul didn’t contradict themselves here. There are actually different kinds of judgment, some of which we’re to avoid, and some of which we’re to practice. The New Testament Greek word krino , most often translated by the English verb “judge,” can have several meanings, including “to distinguish between things”; “to criticize, to find fault with”; “to decide”; and “to condemn a criminal; to dictate the punishment of a wrongdoer.”

So, in which sense are we to judge, and in which are we to refrain from judging? When we consider the contexts of the verses just cited, we find clues for answering that question.

Hypocritical Judgment

In the first passage cited, Jesus went on to say: “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” (Mt 7:2-3).

Clearly, Our Lord is not saying here that we are never to make any kind of negative moral evaluation of behavior. If that were the case, He would have sinned against His own command, since He often rendered a negative judgment on actions and attitudes. In fact, if that were the case, the listeners He was rebuking could rightly have fired back at Him, “Hey, man — don’t judge us!”

Rather, Jesus is saying here that we must not criticize or find fault with others using stricter standards for them than for ourselves. The kind of person He’s addressing here is not simply someone who criti-cizes; He’s rebuking the “hypocrite” (as He notes explicitly in verse 5).

I think He’s also implying here that people who make a habit of criticizing — those for whom criticism is a “default mode” — are the ones most likely to be focused on the petty faults of others while neglecting weightier problems of their own.

Condescension and Condemnation

The context of St. Paul’s remark is also instructive. After asking, “Why then do you judge your brother?” he asks” “Why do you look down on your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom 14:10).

St. Paul isn’t saying we can never come to a conclusion about whether a behavior is wrong and should be avoided. Instead, he’s saying that we must avoid the kind of pride that causes us to “look down on” others because of their behavior, thinking of ourselves too highly because we aren’t like them.

In fact, the passage leading up to the apostle’s remarks shows that he was dealing with a particular group of people: those who “despised” their Christian brothers and sisters because of “disputes over opinions” about whether certain Jewish laws were still to be observed — a matter that was still open to debate among faithful Christians of the time (see Rom 14:1,3). We can’t view this apostolic instruction, then, as some kind of blanket ban on rendering moral evaluations of behavior.

When St. Paul goes on to remind us that we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, he’s warning us that even if we judge a behavior, we must not condemn the person committing it (vv. 10-12). In other words, we must not presume to dictate how the person is to be punished by God, or what kind of final standing the person will have with God.

This insight is confirmed by St. Luke’s report of Jesus’ warning about “judging”: “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned ” (Lk 6:37, emphasis added).

Why is this kind of judgment forbidden to us? The answer is simple: We are competent to judge (evaluate, conclude, decide) only those things that are manifest to us — for example, certain kinds of behavior that clearly contradict the Church’s moral standards, given by God.

On the other hand, we are not competent to judge (discern and evaluate) things that are hidden from us, such as:

  •  the interior secrets of a person’s heart and mind, such as unspoken motivations;
  •  the weight of a person’s past experience in shaping present behavior;
  •  the final outcome of a person’s destiny in eternity.

Only God knows these kinds of things, and only He is able to judge them rightly.

An Example

As an example, let’s take a situation in which the “we mustn’t judge” platitude is often misapplied by Catholics: in the evaluation of homosexual behavior.

Sacred Scripture and Tradition, as consistently interpreted by the Magisterium of the Church, judge homosexual behavior as gravely immoral. Catholics are justified, then, in affirming this judgment when necessary. Neither Jesus nor St. Paul nor any other biblical passage can be reasonably cited to the contrary.

Nevertheless, with regard to individuals engaged in homosexual behaviors, some things are hidden from us that prevent us from passing certain kinds of judgment.

First, we can’t know all the factors in an individual’s past that have contributed to the homosexual inclination or that might make it more difficult to resist temptation: childhood abuse or trauma; incorrect formation of conscience through misinformation; perhaps even biological factors (though research about the possible influence of biology is still inconclusive).

Second, we can’t know the secrets of the individual’s heart, such as the extent to which the orientation has been consciously chosen, or how great an effort of will is being exercised to resist temptation.

Finally, we can’t presume to judge the individual’s eternal destiny. Because we don’t know the other hidden aspects of the situation, we can’t know the degree of culpability. And we certainly can’t predict what changes might take place in a person’s life before he or she dies and appears before the Lord in judgment.

“Hidden” Matters

In dealing with such “hidden” matters, then, even while we affirm the Church’s judgment on particular kinds of sin, we must entrust those who sin to God’s help (and remember to count ourselves among the sinners).

St. Paul’s words should be our own: “I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then everyone will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor 4:3-5, RSV). TCA

Paul Thigpen, Ph.D., is editor of The Catholic Answer and professor of Sacred Theology at Southern Catholic College in Dawsonville, Ga.