Perhaps the single, most often-quoted line from Pope Francis is his response to a question he was asked vis-à-vis the morality of a particularly dicey issue. His infamous-famous reply: Who am I to judge?
Although this remark is often assumed to be flighty and less than serious, it is, in fact, on pretty safe ground. Jesus, it seems, says basically the same thing. For example, in his conversation with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel, he, in essence, says: I judge no one.
If the Gospel of John is to be believed, then Jesus judges no one. God judges no one. But that needs to be put into context. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t any moral judgments and that our actions are indifferent to moral scrutiny. There is judgment; except it doesn’t work the way it is fantasized inside the popular mind. According to what Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel, judgment works this way:
God’s light, God’s truth and God’s spirit come into the world. We then judge ourselves according to how we live in the face of them: God’s light has come into the world, but we can choose to live in darkness. That’s our decision, our judgment. God’s truth has been revealed, but we can choose to live in falsehood, in lies. That’s our decision, our judgment to make. And God’s spirit has come into the world, but we can prefer to live outside that spirit, in another spirit. That too is our decision, our judgment. God judges no one. We judge ourselves. Hence we can also say that God condemns no one, though we can choose to condemn ourselves. And God punishes no one, but we can choose to punish ourselves. Negative moral judgment is self-inflicted. Perhaps this seems abstract, but it is not. We know this existentially, we feel the brand of our own actions inside us. To use just one example: how we judge ourselves by the Holy Spirit.
God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit, is not something so abstract and slippery that it cannot be pinned down. St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Galatians, describes the Holy Spirit in terms so clear that they can only be rendered abstract and ambiguous by some self-serving rationalization. How does he describe and define the Holy Spirit?
So as to make things clear, he sets up a contrast by first telling us what the Holy Spirit is not. The spirit of God, he tells us is not the spirit of self-indulgence, sexual vice, jealousy, rivalry, antagonism, bad temper, quarrels, drunkenness or factionalism. Any time we are cultivating these qualities inside of our lives, we should not delude ourselves into thinking we are living in God’s spirit, no matter how frequent, sincere or pious is our religious practice. The Holy Spirit, he tells us, is the spirit of charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and chastity. Only when we are living inside of these virtues are we living inside God’s spirit.
So then, this is how judgment happens: God’s spirit (charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and chastity) has been revealed. We can choose to live inside the virtues of that spirit or we can choose to live instead inside their opposites (self-indulgence, sexual vice, rivalry, antagonism, bad temper, quarrels, drunkenness and factionalism). One choice leads to a life with God, the other leads away from God. And that choice is ours to make; it doesn’t come from the outside. We judge ourselves. God judges no one. God doesn’t need to.
When we view things inside this perspective it also clarifies a number of misunderstandings that cause confusion inside the minds of believers as well as inside the minds of their critics. How often, for instance, do we hear this criticism: If God is all-good, all-loving and all-merciful, how can God condemn someone to hell for all eternity? A valid question, though not a particularly reflective one. Why? Because God judges no one; God punishes no one. God condemns no one to hell. We do these things to ourselves: we judge ourselves, we punish ourselves and we put ourselves in various forms of hell whenever we do choose not to live in the light, the truth and inside God’s spirit. And that judgment is self-inflicted, that punishment is self-inflicted, and those fires of hell are self-inflicted.
There are a number of lessons in this. First, as we have just seen, the fact that God judges no one helps clarify our theodicy, that is, it helps deflate all those misunderstandings surrounding God’s mercy and the accusation that an all-merciful God can condemn someone to eternal hellfire. Beyond this, it is a strong challenge to us to be less judgmental in our lives, to let the wheat and the darnel sort themselves out over time, to let light itself judge darkness, to let truth itself judge falsehood, and to, like Pope Francis, be less quick to offer judgments in God’s name and more prone to say: “Who am I to judge?”
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.