Footnote: A Few Comments on Mercy and Judgment

As I stated in the essay on God’s Judgment, we should strive to avoid any judgment of any kind on others. Some may balk at this extreme statement as maybe in conflict with other tenants of the Catholic Faith. For example, what of the spiritual work of mercy where we should admonish the sinner? How can I admonish a sinner without first judging them, identifying them as a sinner? As I said in the essay, I can identify an action as either good or bad; I just cannot identify the heart of the actor.

It is a fundamental of Catholic moral doctrine that the moral assessment of any action has three elements: (1) the act itself, (2) the moral knowledge of the actor, and (3) the freedom of the actor to act. The problem of us judging others is that we’re only given the first element; we lack the other two, which is what we mean when we say we don’t the what is in the heart of the person.

For example, I may see someone shoplift food from a store. The action is objectively wrong. I do not know, however, why the person shoplifted. They might be desperate out of poverty and hunger, in which case they are not entirely in control of their own will power. Or, they may suffer from a mental health issue and also not be in control of their actions. Or, they may think, for some reason, that the store is giving away the food for free. Or, they may just be selfish and choose to steal out of arrogance. My observation of the shoplifting sheds no light on what led them to such an act. To admonish the sinner in this case would be to inquire of them why they stole food, then help them in a meaningful manner as needed. If poor, buy them food and help them find resources or a job. If suffering from a mental health issue, then help them find health care services. If ignorant of the cost of food, then inform them. If arrogant, then they need Jesus – help them find Him.

The key point for our own moral life is to avoid passing judgment on another’s heart. I should never claim or even think that a person is evil, or reprehensible, or toxic, or disgusting, etc. As a Christian, I should never make assumptions based on what I see. The reality is only what God sees: what He sees is an infinite difference in goodness between His infinite perfections and our daily sins; for the purpose of illustration, let's quantify this difference in goodness as "a trillion miles apart." In contrast, the difference in goodness between me and another person is very, very small; let's quantify it as "one inch." And yet, He is the Merciful One, forgiving a trillion miles, while I am the judgmental one, avenging a mere inch. Does this make any sense at all? Of course not.

Again, there is no problem with judging an action as good or bad. Nor is there any problem with having a criminal justice system where individuals are incarcerated for bad actions. We don’t jail people for issues of moral theology; we do so to protect the rest of the people. A man who kills another may do so because, for example, a prior brain injury forced such behavior and so I cannot say he is evil; he is a victim of injury. But such a brain-injured man poses a threat to others and is incarcerated for safety's sake.

So, as my own opinion, I stand by my exegesis of this Lucan text: Our eternal salvation depends on us being merciful and not judging what is in the hearts of others. Jesus will be merciful with me to the extent that I am merciful to others. Mercy is not mere forgiveness of an offense; it is the giving of self to a beloved. Everyone, even those who hurt me, are my beloveds, which means I delight in them. I delight to serve them, to sacrifice myself for them. I look to Jesus as my example.

33 And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. 34 And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Lk 23:33-34)