Who Are You to Judge???

Whenever I stir up the pot by writing about those who say they are ‘spiritual but not religious’ the combox fills up with the indignant comments from people who never actually address the points I make, but instead they stomp around in a self righteous air of high dudgeon defending themselves with sentimental arguments which usually end with “who are you to judge???’

Despite my admitted ignorance and arrogance, I do happen to be somewhat of a religious professional and if anybody might make a diagnosis on spiritual matters a priest might just be qualified to do so. The judgement might not be to one’s liking, but what if a doctor told you that smoking cigarettes and eating fast food non stop was bad for you and you ought to stop. You might not like it, and you might chortle on indignantly saying “Who are you to judge???” (Don’t forget to use lots of question marks and exclamation marks to make your point) but the doctor might just know what he’s talking about.

This is one of the burdens the members of the clergy have to bear: people seem to know what’s best for them in the realm of religion in a way that they would not in any other. They know what hymns they want. They know how the youth group should be run, how the sermon should be delivered, what form of architecture the new church should have and just how to live their lives, and who is the priest to judge?

There is an underlying problem here which is the assumed relativism of our culture. It is every man for himself and we all know best. Except of course when we need a car mechanic or open heart surgery. We trust the doctor, the computer geek and the engineer to fix what’s wrong.

Why not trust the priest sometimes too? Lord knows we’re often an incompetent and confused and unprofessional lot of fellows–but sometimes we do actually know what we’re talking about.

That being said, there are plenty of reasons that people may not trust a priest. There have been too many headlines about too many priests who have proved untrustworthy. There have been too many examples of not only priests, but pastors and religious leaders who have let everyone down. So why trust a priest? He might know what he’s talking about. He may be a professional in his field, but even that is not enough.

The only reason a person ought to listen to a Catholic priest is that he speaks with an apostolic authority. As a priest he speaks not with his own authority, but with that of the Catholic Church. If what the priest is saying is congruent with the Catholic faith and springs from his knowledge of the Catholic faith, then he is worth listening to–then he can make a judgement. Indeed, this is really the only way a priest is able to judge. His own opinion doesn’t really matter, but when he teaches the apostolic truth from a position of his authority in the church…then we must listen for he does not speak of his own authority or his own bright ideas, but he is a mouthpiece of the church.

This actually liberates both the priest and the one he is ‘judging’. If the priest has to make a difficult call in a pastoral, moral or theological circumstance he can and should rightly say, “This is not my opinion. This is not my idea. It is simply the teaching of the Church.” As such, that judgement can be as objective and un-sentimental as the judgement of a judge handing down a sentence or ruling on a point of law. It’s in the book. He can quote chapter and verse and he may dislike the judgement personally as much as the person he is judging.

This objectivity is what those who disagree with the Catholic Church on moral teachings find so objectionable and difficult to understand. If a Catholic priest says to a couple who are married outside church law that they should not present themselves for communion (for example) they may huff and puff and blame him for being judgmental–but he is simply stating the teaching of the church. If a Catholic priest says (for example) that abortion is wrong he can do so with an objectivity that frees him from sentimental judgments or personal opinions.

So the answer to the question, “Who are you to judge???” is “It’s not me who’s judging. It’s Christ’s Church.”

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  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    Yes indeed.

    Sometimes you do. :D

  • Tina

    Amen! And it fits well with today’s Mass readings :)

  • Qualis Rex

    Hello Father, your point is very well-taken. But the “why not trust a priest too” just opens up more cans of worms than bass troller on labor day. The issue of trust has been broken repeatedly for the last 3 decades; no one is blaming you personally for this. But the damage has indeed been done, and from the highest levels. That being said, if YOU are asked “who are you to judge???????” if you are an orthodox, believing priest, you can say, “the heir of the holy spirit sent down at Pentecost and passed to me through apostolic succession, charged with upholding the faith and doctrine of the church Our Lord founded for the salvation of souls.”

    Priests who cannot respond with courage in this manner clearly should not be priests.

  • Sarcasm Rocks

    When there is a Religion MD like the Web MD we can finally be rid of you judging priests!

  • bob

    A few points:
    1. Sometimes you know what you’re talking about. Sometimes you don’t. The only way we lay persons can hope to come close to knowing the difference is by applying what you tell us through the filter of our own knowledge, history, and instincts, and that of others whose words have proved wise.

    2. A person who says he is “spiritual but not religious” is declaring himself uninterested in “religious experts,” by definition. Such a person would have no more use for a religious expert than a person whose religion forbids blood transfusions would have for a physician who advises a blood transfusion. The physician may be “right” medically about the need for a transfusion, but his or her type of expertise is simply not germane to the person whose religion forbids it. Thus the priest may be a religious professional, but so what? Whatever expertise he has is in a subject already deemed irrelevant by the person who is “spiritual but not religious.”

    3. Finally, you ask: “Why not trust the priest sometimes too?” Let’s put it this way: I know that most police are honorable hard-working professionals. Only a minority are bullies or corrupt. But the bullies and corrupt rely on the silence and tacit support of those who are good and decent, as well as their superiors. The internal culture of the institution, and the perceived need for institutional preservation, invariably outweigh the imperative to simply do the right thing in individual cases. So that’s why I can’t trust cops, not entirely. It works that way in most closed institutions, especially the ones where the members have a measure of authority over the communities they serve, priestly ranks included, it seems*. And, so that’s why I don’t trust priests, not entirely, even while I recognize that most of you, individually, are good, honorable men.

    * Think I’m raising ancient history? Check out what happened just last week in the diocese of Kansas City: http://tinyurl.com/8tqbggf

  • zillionaire

    Father, most people consult priests for spiritual matters, and most people consult stockbrokers for financial matters, but some have found their way to God without a priest, and some have found their way to financial freedom without a stockbroker. That was as my experience, on both counts.

    I know that others benefit from the assistance of a priest or stockbroker, and I do not begrudge them. Hopefully, priests and stockbrokers do not begrudge those who find their own way.

  • Richard E

    In a way a priest does judge – when he hears one’s confession, the priest will judge the severity of the offense and apply approperate penance for the person.

  • Liz

    People may truly believe that they have found their way to God without a priest. What they cannot do without a priest is receive the sacrament of the Eucharist wherein we find Jesus truly present. A priest may not be holy, he may in fact be a horrible sinner, but when he says the words of consecration over the elements Jesus becomes truly present. There are loads of reasons to be unhappy with some priests and some bishops. Their failings are well known, in fact some of them may even be failings you aren’t particularly aware of. However, the bottom line is that they have the graces associated with their ordination, not for their sake, but for ours. Jesus established His Church on a disciple who denied him, abandoned him, and failed him miserably. However, he was forgiven and the message Jesus gave him “was feed my sheep”. That’s what every priest does. He feeds us with the Body and Blood of Christ. I’ve been in Catholic masses where the priest preached a pretty lousy homily, sometimes not even totally in keeping with the teaching of the Church, but I’ve left Mass still being fed in a way that I never was in a Protestant service, even with a far more eloquent, and even perhaps Biblically faithful pastor. I can’t do that for myself. Surgery isn’t a do it yourself affair, and neither are the sacraments.

  • http://www.dispirited.org Dave Webster

    Not really my area, but really interested in this question: ‘who are you to judge?’

    In an age where we judge others for leisure/fun (what else is reality TV?), the discomfort we have with the idea of being judged seems odd..

  • zillionaire

    Liz, I’m glad that you find God’s presence in the Eucharist. I also find His presence in Protestant communion services, in gatherings of families and friends, and in solitude. In fact, I have to seek His presence in these places, if I want to join my divorced sister or my Protestant wife or my gay friends, who have been denied the Eucharist in the Catholic church. Jesus broke bread with prostitutes and shared the Last Supper with Judas. Surely, He wants to be present for all of us, Catholic or non-Catholic, married or divorced, straight or gay, whether we are welcomed by a priest or not.

  • Qualis Rex

    The god you think you may have found in heresy is but a shaddow of his presence; the difference between hearing someone’s name and shaking hands with them in person. What you sought was obviously a version of god that conformed to your idea that everyone is on a correct path to him, regardless of the bad choices they make in life and the sins in which they choose to indulge. This is of course nothing new, as protestants/heretics have torn out the pages of the bible they found inconvenient, and abandoned the truths they cannot live up to.

    Just remember: regardless of with whom Jesus kept company, He ALWAYS told them to turn away from sin. Pretending it doesn’t exist is not turning away from it, it is merely a coward’s way out of personal responsibility.

  • Glenn Juday

    In the Catholic Church, the person judging is the Divine person of Jesus Christ. He made his teachings clear, and did not trim his message (“This man speaks with authority.”), which led to his rejection and crucifixion. This is part and parcel of the unbroken apostolic succession, indefectibility of the Church, etc. It is all terribly logical. And that makes the Church, in certain quarters, terribly unpopular, just like her founder.

    The role of the Catholic priest is to hand on the Faith, undiluted and however unpopular or popular, as it has been entrusted to the care of the successors of the apostles in union with the successor of Peter. Don’t blame the priest for faithfully fulfilling his role. If you are determined to follow a course of rebellion from one of the definitive teachings of the Church, you must be honest and blame God in the second person of the Blessed Trinity. You must have the intellectual integrity to address God directly and make your attempt to claim a superior moral authority over Him. Of course that is a foolish, useless, dangerous, and damning thing to do, but the logical consistency requires it.

    The job of the priest is to guide you away from that self-destructive fate, much as a lifeguard rescues a drowning swimmer. When you are drowning it is not a good time to reprimand the lifeguard and push away from him. Instead it is the time to wake up from a fantasy world that induced you to get in over your head and recognize the the deadly peril you are in and to cooperate in a move back into safe water.

    The priest does not have to be a pleasant personality in order for him to provide the sacramental help he is empowered with, although most priests are pleasant enough. The priest does not have to be a scholar or even smarter than you to provide the sacramental help he is empowered with, although many priests are scholarly enough. All he has to do is administer the sacraments according to the mind of the Church and the power of Christ will be transmitted into this flawed, often sorrowful world, to our eternal benefit. It would be the height of folly to stand on pride and a superior attitude and thereby reject the most important help available for the most important goal in any human life – namely getting home to heaven. Just determine whether the priest is orthodox or a rank heretic, cooperate with sound spiritual advice the priest offers, and receive the sacraments with the humility of a spiritual beggar, which we all most assuredly are.

  • Faith

    The Church is not an automatic sacrament dispenser. If you believe in the Eucharist which necessarily means you believe in the authority of the priest, then think where does that authority come from? If it comes from God wouldn’t it be good to then obey that authority? Divorced people can receive communion unless they have remarried. Merely being divorced does not proclude one. Gay people who are not in a state of mortal sin can receive communion. Being gay does not proclude one. Sorry about the Protestanta but they were the ones that left the table in the first place, so it is hard to feel sorry for them as if some how their refusal to be part of the family gets transmogrified into a snub to them. Rather twisted thinking there! The thing that keeps one from receiving the Eucharist is not being in full communion with the Church either because of grave sin or because one does not profess belief in the Church. And of course God is present in other places too. And yes Jesus broke bread with sinners. He came to save them from sin, not to tell them sin is okay. there seem to be so many people like Zillionaire who want their cake and to eat it too and then get their noses out of joint when people say no. How dare the Church demand allegiance to Christ and his teachings! Zillionaire and so many mushy brained pseudo-Christians want everything to conform to their own version of the Gospels. Blech.

  • zillionaire

    Qualis Rex, why would you make such a an inflammatory and presumptuous statement?

    You know nothing about me or my family or my relationship with God.

    Who are you to judge?

  • zillionaire

    Faith, you know nothing about my beliefs, only that I empathize with prayerful family members and friends who have been rejected by the Catholic church.

    Where did I depart from Christ or develop my own version of the Gospels or say that sin is OK? Jesus never mentioned priests or Protestants or gay people. He was absolute about divorce — absolutely condemning divorce and absolutely forgiving the woman at the well.

  • FWKen


    I don’t care one way or another about you religious opinions, but the judgmentalism that permeates your every comment is hilarious, given the topic.

    And its always that way. :-)

  • Bob

    “If you are determined to follow a course of rebellion from one of the definitive teachings of the Church, you must be honest and blame God in the second person of the Blessed Trinity. You must have the intellectual integrity to address God directly and make your attempt to claim a superior moral authority over Him. ”

    This would be true if those teachings were indeed definitive. But if they are not definitive, then those who reject them have an issue not with God but with the Church. And it would in that case (and I’m just speaking hypothetically here, naturally) be the Church that has made a tacit claim of moral superiority over God.

  • zillionaire

    FWKen, if I have judged Father Longenecker or you or any of the other commenters, I apologize.

    My comments concern doctrines, not personalities, and they should not be taken personally.

  • Charles E. Mac Kay

    Full marks father – you hit the nail right on the head. I fully support what you say

  • Laura Sample Coykendall

    It is so interesting that the word judge has become such a common indictment of all who believe in the Truth. We do not condemn others who do not believe, but those who do not believe have made their own choices, without the benefit of grace and faith, which are gifts that we have been given. Pride is now considered a positive trait in the secular world, and is not realized to be a sin that separates us from God. As long as we fail to recognize that all we are given is to be used to build up the Church and not for our own view of Earthly success, there will be errors made that could have catastrophic results. Sin is real, and does exist in this world, contrary to popular secular belief. This is the role of the Church, and its priests and bishops, t and help us form consciences that are able to not only know what is the truth, but to share the Sacraments and the Way so that we become closer to God through his Son with the assurance that the Holy Spirit is with us in these difficult times. All of our priests need our prayers as we cannot have the Eucharist without them, from which comes the strength to go forth and share the Gospel.

  • Glenn Juday

    Dear Bob,

    “This would be true if those teachings were indeed definitive.”

    The Church, now and in the past, goes to great lengths to make clear its definitive teachings. Priests are trained to discuss these matters with the congregations under their spiritual care. This thread began with Fr. Longenecker making the observation that he encounters people, a number of whom assume themselves to be Catholic, who explicitly reject the role of the priest as spiritual counsellor and guide. Thus we have arrived full circle, and again you can appreciate the consistent and unsurpassed logic of the Catholic faith.

    Again, the Catholic Church is criticized by a number of philosophers and even by non-catholic Christians not infrequently for trying to be overly definitive – to the point of being accused of an obsession with statements of its teaching. Now, the criticism cannot apply both ways – the Church too definitive, and simultaneously wide open for individual Catholics to reject its teachings.

    The actual intellectual mistake, understandable enough in any who are not grounded in faith, is to fail to grasp how it is Christ’s Church, not a human-invented sociocultural accident. Catholics are obliged to oppose sinful human behavior in the Church, and in that specific worldly misapplication of the phrase, oppose “the Church.” But they cannot put themselves in opposition to the teachings of the Church, and simultaneously claim to be doing God’s will. It is a critical distinction to make, and one that, tragically, a distressingly large number of Catholics of today in the U.S. are not prepared to make.

  • http://gravitationisnotresponsible.blogspot.com/ Guillermo Santiago

    When question is posed to me, “Who are you to judge?”, I respond that I am a rational, reasonably intelligent, and well-read human being. If my interlocutor implies, to any degree, that I am none of these. I ask them, “Who are you to judge?”.