Questions Answered

Judge Not. Really?

Judging our neighbor; and the principle of subsidiarity.  

Question:  I have found that penitents often confess judging their neighbor.  Is all judgment of our neighbor condemned by Christ?

Answer:  In Matthew 7:11, Christ says: “Judge not that you be not judged.”  This has led some people to think that all judgment is a sin.  This is simply an impossible position.  There is, of course, an intellectual act of judgment; for example, the whole is equal to the sum of its parts.  This does not fall under the prohibition against judgment in any way, nor does the judgment a man makes concerning his own actions in his conscience.

Rather, our Lord is speaking of a judgment which is an act of the virtue of justice, a determination about what is right in either a theoretical or a practical way.  It concerns the judgment of the actions of others.  The standard of judgment proceeds from a person who has the virtue in question about which the judgment is made.  Chaste men determine what chastity is, and so on.

Judgment, in the moral sense, is an act of the virtue of justice, and has been extended to refer to any determination about what is right.  For such judgment to be morally good, it must be an act of reason (which is where judgment resides) and the person making the judgment, has to have a correct intention in making the judgment.  Judgment, then, must be both an act of justice, because it presupposes a right intention, and an act of prudence, which ensures that a person has a right to judge in this case, and actually does so, given the circumstances.  In justice, this means that there normally is a third party who acts as an umpire between both the parties involved.

Evil judging, then, refers to judgments which occur “going against the rightness of justice” or “beyond the judge’s authority”, or “based on uncertain evidence” (Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae, II-II, 60, 2, ad corp.).  The prohibition in Matthew 7 refers to the last kind of judgment, the one based on uncertain evidence.

Thomas Aquinas teaches that, in the absence of clear evidence, doubts about the wickedness of another should always be interpreted for the best.  This is because if one judges a good act to be an evil one, one commits an act of injustice.  If, however, one judges an evil act to be good, one does not personally suffer any moral failure.

Nevertheless, one may judge another’s action to be evil from suspicions gained by one who has long experience of the moral actions of others based on personal experience.  Aquinas quotes Aristotle: “Old people are very suspicious, for they have often experienced the faults of others”   (Rhetoric, II, 13).  Also, the degree of certainty necessary to make judgments in a court (known as moral certitude) is not the same as is necessary in scientific matters.  This is because of the uncertainty of human acts which have a great number of circumstances connected to them.  “Some kind of certainty is found in human acts, not, indeed, the certainty of a demonstration, but such as is befitting the matter in point, for instance when a thing is proved by suitable witnesses”  (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 60, 3, ad 1).

Question: Are there any moral principles to guide decisions concerning the relationship of Church and state, or the state and the family?  For example, is there a moral and immoral way to legislate socialized medicine?

Answer:  There is a principle of Catholic social teaching which derives from the natural universe, and the manner in which God governs it: the principle of subsidiarity.  This shows the nexus of the natural and moral orders.

In the natural world, the most powerful governs the less powerful, but through other things.  God, for example, does not directly heat water but uses the energy in something like fire or the sun to heat water.  Primary causes act through secondary causes.  In fact, primary causes impart the power to secondary causes.  In God’s case, this is not due to any deficiency in his power, but rather demonstrates that he is, in fact, all powerful.  “God is the sovereign master of his plan.  But to carry it out, he also makes use of his creature’s cooperation.  This use is not a sign of weakness, but rather a token of almighty God’s greatness and goodness.  For God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and, thus, of cooperating in the accomplishment of his plan” (CCC 306).  In the physical universe, the most powerful, in form or in energy, exercises power over the less powerful in form.

The moral universe is similar.  God exercises causality and authority here, too, but through human instruments, who are his authorities.  These authorities do not exercise power in their own right, but only in virtue of the common good which they express and represent.  The higher in society is not determined by the power of of its form, as in nature, but by the greater common good.  The higher the common good, the more powerful is its authority.  The common good of the Church, for instance, which is the vision of God, is a higher good than peace and domestic tranquility, which is the common good of the state.  The common good of the state is higher than that of the family, which is the progress in virtue of the members, and the material prosperity necessary to sustain this progress in virtue.

As God does not rob the lower powers of their characteristic action, but uses the higher powers to sustain the lower powers in their action, so it is not good for higher societies to attempt to usurp the characteristic actions and goods of lower societies.  Rather, the purpose of the higher community is better served, when this community encourages the lower communities to correctly realize their contribution to the order of the common good.  Not only is this true, because it reflects the manner in which God acts in the world, but it is also true because of human limitations.  Man is such a varied creature that no one human community can sufficiently do justice to all the various goods of human nature.  For instance, economics (and this includes medicine) are more properly a part of the domestic, or family, order than the political one.  In an emergency, like an epidemic or a plague, the state may have to control medicine; but when the emergency passes, this must be returned to the private sector.   This does not mean that the state cannot make laws to ensure proper health care for all its citizens.  But it cannot force the members to choose a particular kind of care, cause their own deaths, mandate a given treatment, or make the medical establishment a state bureaucracy.

The state can mandate that everyone receives a basic education, but it does not have the right to take the primordial right of education away from the parents.  Education properly belongs to the domestic order.  The state has the duty to encourage the parents to exercise their right, not replace them.

Both the individual, and the member communities, have the right to develop themselves at their own level of contribution to the good.  The individual and member communities can, and should, accomplish their place in the common good.  If the higher community regulates the good of the lower, it can only be so that the lower does its part to encourage the good of the higher community.  The higher community can hold the lower community accountable for the good which it should do, but not replace it.  The Church can hold the state accountable for serious violations of human rights, which destroy the civil peace and tranquility of citizens—for example, in the case of the right to life.  However, the Church is not to replace the state, nor does it have a political mission to field candidates for office, or unite throne and altar, so that the ecclesiastical superior should be identical with the civil ruler.  Though in the past, some churchmen have been statesmen, but this was due to the dearth of good statesmen and not to the ordinary purpose of the Church.

Pius XI called subsidiarity the supreme principle of social philosophy:  “Nevertheless, it is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own power and industry”  (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 79).  John Paul II concurs: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of the lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need, and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (Centesimus Annus, 48, 4; quoted in CCC 1883).  The Catechism summarizes: “The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism.  It sets limits to state intervention.  It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies.  It tends toward the establishment of true international order”  (CCC, 1885).


Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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