A decade ago, at World Youth Day, Pope Francis spoke about God’s role as our judge: “God judges us by loving us. If I embrace his love then I am saved; if I refuse it, then I am condemned—not by him but my own self. That is because God never condemns; he only loves and saves.”
Though human and plagued with limitations, we are called to imitate God as best we can. He judges but doesn’t condemn. Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics yet I think the distinction between judging and condemning is worth a bit of prayerful pondering. Despite Jesus saying, “Do not judge or you too will be judged…” (Matthew 7) we cannot help but judge. Doing so is in our human DNA. Jesus, I think, is speaking about judgment as condemnation rather than as predisposed attitudes, feelings, and thoughts. We are shaped and molded from infancy about what is proper, good, and right. This shaping takes place in our home, neighborhood, demographic, by our family system, culture, education, worship, etc. All these factors form our sense of normalcy; things outside that known parameter receive our unintentional judgment. In that sense, we all make prejudgments or are prejudiced. We identify our favorite color or pet, a preferred type of music or game to play, a chosen interest or hobby; we develop a bias for certain things over others. We make judgments about what we like and don’t like. This judgment expands to people: we often make negative judgments about bullies or swindlers or others who do bad things. We make plenty of judgments for ourselves about using drugs or the internet, or developing habits that direct us in positive ways while deterring us from destructive acts. Right judgment is one of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. To judge is not bad. But to condemn is.
It is natural for us to judge others, in part, because it is natural for us to judge ourselves. When we make our Examination of Conscience at Mass or before Reconciliation, we account for our attitudes and assess our behaviors. We judge ourselves and ask for forgiveness. Saint Ignatius of Loyola suggested that it might be more proper to make an Examination of Consciousness, i.e., rather than focusing on “conscience” which judges right from wrong, we ought to adopt the habit of being consciously aware of God working in our lives. In other words, because it is not ours to judge, for there is only one judge—the God who judges us by loving us—our job is not to incriminate ourselves but to reflect upon those attitudes and acts that bring us closer to God and love, as well as those that take us down dangerous or unholy paths.
How Pope Francis once famously responded to a question about judging gay people, he has also said or implied about divorced people, people of other religions, other races, political enemies, and others who get wrongfully condemned. His style is like that of Jesus when responding to those that wanted to trap Him; it might be good to revisit his words periodically: “You ask in a provocative way if I approve of homosexuality. Let me reply with another question. Tell me this: When God looks at a gay person, does He endorse the existence of this person with love, or does He reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person. If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Even though we are creatures of judgment, it is important to keep in mind that there is only one judge. He never condemns.