“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”
I must have heard that a thousand times growing up. I hasten to add that I wasn’t in any way a bully or a particularly mean child, indeed, I was more often than not the one on the receiving end! But if somebody irritated me or did something to upset me and I let fly with a diatribe of personal remarks against somebody at school? “If you can’t say anything nice…”. This is a prime example of how Christian morality has been adopted into secular society because it’s essentially a lesson in good manners and in generally being a nice person. Another example would be “Judge not lest ye be judged”. Even (most) atheists can get on board with that one because it’s a clear warning against being a hypocrite. These proverbs have their roots in Christian teaching but they have been reduced and diluted to make them palatable to a multi-faith, multicultural society. When we speak about certain moral issues (abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality) from a Catholic perspective, we sometimes find that atheists or non-Christians will hit back with “You’re not a Christian if you judge someone” in order to silence us. And that’s very true. So as Christ loved all us all, we are called to imitate Him and love each and everyone of our fellow human beings. But there is a fine line between avoiding judgement and failing your neighbour. So is it ever acceptable to judge another person we know to be in mortal sin?
The “Who am I to judge?” approach has much good in it. We absolutely have no right to judge anybody. That right belongs to God and God alone. The problem is that we have separated what the scriptures say about judgement from what is says about sin, so much so that we find even some clergy and religious will go so far as to deny the existence of sin in order to promote compassion and charity to others. When this happens, the “Who am I to judge?” approach risks exchanging one sin for another. Let’s take a recent example. In the last month or so, a Jesuit priest has been the focus of much anger and division on Catholic social media. Father James Martin has slammed those who disagree with his more liberal position on homosexuality as “bigots” and “homophobes” who should be “silenced by their Bishops”. On the other hand, his critics are calling for Father James to be publicly corrected by his own Bishop or even laicised. Father James says that he considers that he is in no position to judge another human being for their lifestyle choices. His opponents say that his compassion for homosexuals condones sin. Prepare yourself for a shock – in many ways, both are absolutely correct. And in many ways, both are completely missing the point.
I love St Paul. He was this dedicated, devoted, enthusiastic warrior for the Lord; a man who truly understood that it wasn’t just enough to hear the Good News but that it was his duty to share that news with others so that everyone could live by it and be saved. From his conversion on the road to Damascus to his journeys through the cities of the ancient world, St Paul not only spoke with a remarkable clarity but he did something all good priests should do. He responded to the world around him. He saw the trials and struggles people faced in their daily lives and he tried to comfort them, to support them and to show compassion to people wherever he found them most in need. Fortunately for us, St Paul wrote letters to Christian communities from various places on his travels and it was while he was in Corinth that he penned a letter to the Romans. On a totally nerdy humour note, it always makes me chuckle when I think of St Paul sitting in Gaius’ villa passionately describing the wickedness he sees everywhere around him in Corinth……in a letter to the Romans of all people! His Epistle was written at a time when Rome had seen it all; Julia the Younger exiled for adultery with half the senators and public officials in Rome, Tiberius holding lavish orgies at his private villa on Capri and Caligula…..well…..let’s not go there. Suffice to say, Ancient Rome was a hotbed of sin when St Paul arrived there and I can’t help but picture him turning to Tertius saying: “And I thought Corinth was bad!”
With this setting in mind, let’s look at what St Paul says in his Letter to the Romans. In Chapter 1, he writes:
29 And so they are steeped in all sorts of depravity, rottenness, greed and malice and addicted to envy, murder, wrangling, treachery and spite.
30 Libellers, slanderers, enemies of God; rude, arrogant and boastful, enterprising in sin, rebellious to parents,
31 Without brains, honour, love or pity.
32 They know what God’s verdict is; that those who behave like this deserve to die – and yet they do it; and what is worse, encourage others to do the same.
St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 1, Verses 29 – 32
If you read this passage with the Ten Commandments in mind, you see exactly what St Paul is referring to. We know what God wants of us. We know because He told us. And yet, even by God inscribing His commandments into stone tablets on Mt Sinai and even by giving them to Moses to take among the people? Those commandments were still being ignored, abused and broken. St Paul is telling us that anyone who breaks the commandments of God is a sinner but more than that, if someone is encouraging someone else to break the commandments of God, he’s not only “steeped in sin” himself but he’s encouraging others to be sinful too. When St Paul talks about people “deserving to die”, he doesn’t mean by some kind of public execution or brutal authoritarian punishment. He’s talking about eternal life which can only be won by repentance, faith and a desire to live a holy life that is lived truthfully to the word of God. Now let’s remind ourselves of the Father James Martin situation. This passage would seem to suggest that his critics are right and he is wrong. By denying the sinful nature of homosexuality, he’s not only denying the will of God but he’s leading others to sin by misleading them as to what is and what isn’t a sin. So is that the end of the debate? Is it over yet? Well, not quite.
Immediately after this passage, St Paul has this to say:
1 So no matter who you are, if you pass judgement you have no excuse. In judging others you condemn yourself, since you behave no differently from those you judge.
2 We know that God condemns that sort of behaviour impartially:
3 and when you judge those who behave like this while you are doing exactly the same, do you think you will escape God’s judgement?
St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 2, Verses 1-3
So……Father James his right and his critics are wrong. Because we’re all sinners and therefore, nobody can judge anybody else and we should show love and compassion if we want to live good Christian lives. Right? Well, again, not quite. Here’s the thing. When we judge another person, we fall into sin. But we also fall into sin when we ignore the will of God. On contemplating this today, I was immediately reminded of what Jesus said when He gave us the the Great Commandment;
37 Jesus said, You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.
38 This is the greatest and the first commandment.
39 The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself.
40 On these two commands hang the whole law and the Prophets also.
St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 22, Verses 37 – 40
Whatever action we take in life, whatever decision we make, we should be asking ourselves two questions;
- Does it show love for God?
- Does it show love for my neighbour?
This examination of conscience begins in the heart. Does it feel right? Does it feel like something that might dishonour God or upset someone close to me? Then it moves to the soul. Will this harm my soul? Will this action lead me into mortal sin which would keep me from receiving the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus? Will it cause others to fall into sin also? And finally, we examine with our minds; Do I know it’s wrong and am I denying God if I ignore that knowledge of sin? And am I being dishonest in denying that knowledge to others which may cause them to fall into sin too?
In all these examinations, we’re first looking to God and then we’re looking to our neighbour and in trying to love both, we make holiness the master as St Paul told us to do in his Letter to the Romans. In doing what we know to be right, we honour God but we also show love and compassion to our neighbour because we afford them the same opportunity to do the same. People tend to think of vocations as being strictly for religious or priests but daily life is filled with a hundred little vocations. Any time we face sin, we are reminded of the vocation we accepted at baptism. To live for Christ. To avoid sin and seek salvation. If our vocation is to remind someone of church teaching so that they can avoid sin, that isn’t judgement. That’s love. But here’s the key to understanding this commandment in relation to our example at the start of this post.
When Father James made the comments he did, what was his intention? If he made the comments out of love and compassion for his neighbours who have same sex attraction because he wanted them to feel accepted and embraced, that is perfectly understandable and indeed, it’s admirable that he wishes to show compassion to sinners just as Jesus taught us. But in denying the sin, in ignoring the commandments given to us by God, in making the word of God secondary to human emotion, he doesn’t show love for God. He only shows love for his neighbour. Christ required us to do both. Similarly, when Father James’ critics attacked him as they did, what was their intention? Was it to uphold God’s law or was it to inflate their own egos? If it was to defend the teaching of Holy Mother Church, they were showing love for God because church law is Divine law. But without showing love and understanding to Father James at the same time, they were failing to love their neighbour. Christ required us to do both.
The Great Commandment requires us to do something else. Look at how Jesus imparted this lesson. God comes first. Our neighbours come second. But where do we fit in? I believe that what Jesus is telling us through this teaching is that not only must we have love for God and love for our neighbour but that in order to show that love sincerely and truthfully, we must never ever put our own will before those God or of other people. We must become completely selfless and serve both God and our neighbour in the way of Christ. Easy to say right? But what if a friend has told us she is considering having an abortion, are we to remain silent for fear of being judgemental or making her feel worse than she already does? Where is the love in that?
As with the situation involving Father James, we approach it through examining our conscience first. We pray; speaking and listening. We read; learning and acknowledging why God commands us as he does. We act; kindly, with compassion, out of love. If our arguments against something come from a place of desire for praise for our own egos, then we are putting ourselves before God and before our neighbour. When we speak out, and sometimes we are indeed commanded by God to speak out, we must do so from a selfless place of compassion, understanding and honesty. We do not hide the truth of God’s word but neither do we abuse our fellow man. We show love to both and in that way, we are shown love too. A correction when offered with true Christian charity is not a judgement. And denying sin is not compassion or Christ like either. By having the courage to stand for Christ, by having the willpower to lay down our egos and serve Him as he taught us, by doing all things for God and for our neighbour out of love? We will truly be saved and will know eternal life.
And yes, it’ll be hard sometimes. We will often be mocked, ridiculed and hated. Sometimes when we do what we know to be right, we might lose friends or we might have to distance ourselves from the people and things we love in order to show love. But however difficult it may be and however much you fear resentment or even abandonment, remember these words written by St Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians:
6 We prove we are God’s servants by our purity, knowledge, patience and kindness; by a spirit of holiness, by a love free from affectation.
7 By the word of truth and by the power of God, by being armed with the weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.
8 Prepared for honour or disgrace, for blame or praise; taken for imposters while we are genuine;
9 Obscure yet famous; said to be dying and here we are alive; rumoured to be executed before we are sentenced.
10 Thought most miserable and yet we are always rejoicing; taken for paupers though we make others rich, for people having nothing, though we have everything.
St Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 5, Verses 6 – 10