Who You are to Judge: A Response to Pope Francis and the Cult of “Tolerance”


It’s not every day that we see the mainstream media celebrate a religious figure as some kind of rock star. From Jimmy Swaggart to Ted Haggard, journalists usually treat religious leaders as hypocrites, buffoons, or both. Dispensation seems to have been granted for the new Roman Catholic pope, Francis (a.k.a. Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina).

Bergoglio has become the darling of the media—rising even to the status of Time’s “Person of the Year”—because he has projected a more “liberal” tone on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality. Bergoglio consummated this love affair with the media on a plane from Rome to Brazil. When asked about his evaluation of homosexual priests, the pontiff declared poignantly: “Who am I to judge?”

And yet journalists and pundits eventually qualify their adulation over the pope’s new “tone” with the admission that he has not proposed altering any substantive aspects of church doctrine. In fact, Bergoglio has reaffirmed all of Rome’s contentious dogmas: he has opposed same-sex marriage as a “total rejection of God’s law” and condemned abortion as a “fearful” offense against God, just to name a few.

And even as Bergoglio puts a smile on the Church’s social doctrine, he pontificates with a grimace on matters economic. In his recent “apostolic exhortation” Evangelii Gaudium, Bergoglio issues a harsh condemnation of free market capitalism. In the tract, he directs his ire not at some faceless system, but at the individuals whose free choices drive the capitalist economy. The pontiff chastises as inhumane and ignoble the capitalists who are “in thrall to an . . . indifferent and self-centered mentality.” He laments   “careerism” as the pursuit of “parched” souls who find themselves “buried under a pile of excuses.” He rebukes individualism as an “evil.”

One could accuse Bergoglio of hypocrisy: he claims the mantle of nonjudgmental tolerance in one breath while hastening to judge people categorically in the next. But to single out the Pope in this regard would be petty. No one masquerading as “nonjudgmental” can be fully consistent. To sneer at moral judgment is—you guessed it—to make a moral judgment. The flaw here is not hypocrisy—it’s self-refutation.

Members of the cult of moral tolerance can’t help but be judgmental in spite of themselves. No human being can avoid the necessity of making judgments. This applies in particular to the leader of a religious ideology.  As a systematic world view, Catholicism offers its followers guidance for living and lists of virtues and vices consonant with its vision of the good life. To issue this advice is to render moral judgment.

The need to judge the world and the people in it is a fact that is rooted in something deeper than one’s adherence to any specific ideology. It goes to the core of what it is to be a human being. Human beings are conceptual beings who unavoidably grasp similarities and differences in what they observe. And we cannot help but notice differences between what we take to be food and poison, between apparent friends and enemies. Whether we live in a cave or in a civilized metropolis, we need to make judgments of value.

Try as we may,  we cannot abandon the necessity of judgment, because we can’t see the world as an infant, without the benefit of the experience or the belief system we have built up over the years. The most we can do is pretend that we do not need to judge; we can abdicate the responsibility of forming judgments rationally, abandoning our judgment to chance and whim. We can lazily jump to conclusions on the basis of our first impressions, or we can try to believe only what we want to be true—rather than believing what our best assessment of the evidence dictates.

When we abdicate the responsibility for rationally judging for ourselves according to our firsthand grasp of the facts, we usually surrender our standards of judgment to other people: to our parents, our peers, or to the voices of whichever authority figures have worked their way into our subconscious when we let down our guard. So while we can’t avoid making judgments as such, we can choose to irresponsibly parrot the judgments of others.

But judging the world around is far too important a responsibility to abandon to others. Moral judgments concern the most fundamental choices in life.  Some choices lead us to a fulfilling life, while others license stagnation or destruction. Being honest solidifies our grip on reality, while dishonesty isolates us in a fantasy world. Living with integrity harmonizes our actions with our values; compromising these values makes our lives schizophrenic. Practicing justice rewards others who practice our values; injustice punishes allies and rewards our enemies.

Even if we don’t communicate these judgments to others, it is crucially important that we make them for ourselves, not only to identify the right people to associate with, but also to reaffirm to ourselves the kind of life we want to live. But it is also crucial to pronounce moral judgment. The kids who cheer on the playground bully rather than shun him give him license to bully again. The voters who distinguish a politician’s character flaws from his policy stance should not be surprised when the same politician enacts corrupt policies. Diplomats who negotiate with dictators can now reflect on the long history of betrayal and aggression of the tyrants they have coddled. Evil people gain power in the world because good people remain silent.

It is understandable if good people chafe at “judgmental” behavior: they may confuse irresponsible judgment with the practice of judgment as such. And we should resist the intellectually lazy father who criticizes his daughter for wanting to have a career rather than becoming a wife and mother out of high school, or the dogmatic teacher who chastises a student for registering an unpopular opinion on a paper assignment.

We should be especially critical of the irresponsible judgment of those who are held up as moral authorities. Consider the priest who regards homosexual acts as immoral because they are condemned in an ancient text—a text that sanctions the existence of slavery but prohibits the consumption of shellfish. Pressed on the relevance of this ancient text, the priest might insist that the natural purpose of intercourse is reproduction (ignoring the fact that he does not condemn sex among sterile couples), or that children need role models of both sexes (leaving aside that he belongs to an all-male clergy). If he then goes on to defend his judgment as a matter of faith, as a claim to be believed without evidence, then the utter irrationality and irresponsibility of his judgment rear their ugly head.

When some of the most intellectually reckless people issue some of the loudest judgments, it is little wonder that the practice of moral judgment is unpopular. But the alternative is not to refrain from judging. It is to be more scrupulously rational in one’s own judgment—and to harshly judge those who refuse to be scrupulous themselves.

For this reason it is particularly inexcusable to ask that the world refrain from judgment because one fears being judged—because one is insecure in the merit of one’s own decisions, and unsure of how to engage in responsible judgment of one’s own. Perhaps it is no surprise that priests intone that we should “judge not lest we be judged.” It seems to exempt them and anyone else who lacks confidence in his own virtue from being held culpable for their own irresponsible judgments.

Needless to say, the “judge not” attitude doesn’t stop the priests from preaching the moral teachings of their religion. They can rationalize this behavior by claiming that these are actually God’s judgments, not theirs. This is the most they can do to reconcile their preaching with their belief that human beings are too insignificant and too sinful to judge things for themselves.

But anyone with a mind has the ability to make responsible moral judgments. One does not need to be an omniscient or omnipotent being to tell the basic difference between good and evil. Moral judgment is the right and the privilege of proud human beings, one that should not be surrendered to others, let alone those who don’t have the confidence to judge for themselves.

Who are you to judge? A human being with a mind, that’s who. Of course to judge others is to assume a serious responsibility. To do it appropriately is no easy task. But neither is anything important in life. On this matter, the philosopher Ayn Rand proposed a counterpoint to the conventional wisdom of “judge not lest ye be judged.” As an alternative, she proposed that we “judge, and prepare to be judged.” Do you agree with this advice? Judge for yourself.

Creative commons-licensed image from Flickr user theirry ehrmann
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Valery Publius is the pen name of a teacher living in the American South.