“Ask a Priest: What Is Rash Judgment About?”

Q: I have a question regarding the sin of rash judgment. I saw Father John Hardon’s definition of this sin, but I am still confused. Is it venially sinful to suspect people of venial or grave sins? For example, in St. Alphonsus’ sermons, he is constantly warning people about dying in a state of unrepentant mortal sin. Also he has a sermon about tepid souls (those who fall into easily avoidable venial sins). Is he not suspicious of the congregation? I heard a priest give a homily about the importance of getting anger and hatred out of our hearts, which is obviously important. But where I am confused is, it seems like a necessity for priests and members of the clergy to judge a little bit. But does this not go against the Church’s teaching about rash judgment? Is it a sin to suspect a friend of a grave sin “based on slight indications” if it is rooted in good intention (admonishing them)? I have a habit of suspecting lukewarm Catholics of committing sins against chastity. I don’t know if this is a venial sin on my part. Can you explain the rules in regards to rash judgment? – P.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Two short answers to your questions could be summed up in the adages “Hate the sin, love the sinner” and “Assume the best of people.”

It isn’t rash judgment for a homilist to speak out against objective evils. Part of his mission is to teach and to encourage people to do good and avoid evil. What would be inappropriate is for a homilist to attack people by name.

So, if a priest suspects that a number of his parishioners are hooked on pornography – perhaps he has heard wives complain about their husbands’ addiction – it is within his duty to somehow try to teach his flock about the seriousness of the evil. He could choose to do it in a homily, without singling out any individuals. At that point it’s up to each person to do an examen of conscience.

Now, if we notice things that are objectively wrong, we don’t have to turn a blind eye to it. In some cases, to do so might be a form of indifference, which isn’t good.

Nevertheless, seeing what we think is an objective evil doesn’t give us the right to go around and ruin a person’s reputation. That could be gravely sinful.

On the other hand, we do have a right to make prudential and discreet decisions. Let’s say you hear the guys at the office routinely engage in lewd talk. These same guys later invite you to join them for a few drinks after work.

You have the right to refuse to socialize with them, based on your impression that they aren’t the healthiest men to hang around with. True, you don’t know them 100%. Perhaps they are decent people, deep down. But you, not having a lot of time to research the situation, have to make a prudential decision on the spot. So you politely decline their invitation.

You could do this without judging them, per se. It’s just that, given incomplete information, you have to make a prudential decision. You might sense that joining them for “a few drinks” would lead to a less than morally uplifting activity.

But what if you decide in your heart that “These guys are worthless”? Then, you might be crossing a line. Perhaps the sin is venial in this case.

Where mortal sin could come in (aside from the above-mentioned case of ruining a person’s reputation) is if you fall into a habit of judging others or letting your judgment about a particular person harden to the point that you wish ill upon the person or you refuse crucial acts of charity or you let your judgment become a kind of active animosity. This can happen within families where relatives stop talking to each other for years at a stretch.

So what to do if you see or suspect someone is sinning? The best thing is to pray for the person. We are all sinners, after all, and Our Lord doesn’t want us to spend our time pointing fingers at others.

It also helps to keep in mind that even when we see someone else do something objectively wrong, we simply cannot see all the hidden, conscious and subconscious, motivations and influences that led them to do what they did — only God can see the “whole story” behind every person’s sins. Spontaneously, we tend to make excuses for ourselves when, for example, someone honks at us in traffic. Why not form the habit of doing the same for our neighbors? Wouldn’t this be a wonderful way to “love your neighbor as yourself”?

And what about that habit you have of assuming faults against chastity among “lukewarm Catholics”? Or suspecting grave sin “based on slight indications”?

This might be a moment to step back and see where that habit came from, because it isn’t healthy to assume the worst of others. Habitual judgmentalism could be a sign of pride as well as a distraction from one’s own failings. Rash judgment by its nature isn’t justified in any case.

These statements, by the way, are meant as an observation, not as a judgment on present company.

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