Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Catholic Virtual Wars: 00 Rash Judgment - The Stealthy Sin

 "The Gossips" | 1948 | Norman Rockwell
(study the painting well - starting with the first lady at top, and the last at the end!)
Gossip, detraction, calumny, false accusations , etc., often begin with "rash judgment"

What is rash judgment or, "judgment from suspicion", as it was called by St. Thomas Aquinas? Let's look at it collectively and consider our online activity. I'll kick off the discussion; you make it come alive - in the Combox!


We make judgments all day long without thinking about them:  What to eat; what to wear; who to "hang out" with on a given day, or what to read on the internet.  Parents must judge the actions of their children in order to teach them.  Likewise, teachers must pass judgments on the work of their students, and when their behavior causes problems for others.  Police officers make judgments on the street; judges judge in a courtroom. 

Snap decisions must often be made about moral issues.  If one student offers another a master sheet with test answers, the other student must make a judgment: To accept and use it would be cheating. For him to point this out to the other student is not a rash judgment but, fraternal correction - a topic for another post. It is evident that the purpose of having such a thing is to cheat, which is immoral.   

Using a really exaggerated example to avoid "hot-button" topics, if we encounter a Catholic online in new media or social media who is claiming that there are four persons in the Trinity, it would be an act of charity to say something.  There is also a duty to truth.  How it gets said is another matter, and that will also be the subject of another post.

A simple rule to follow is that we cannot judge someone else's motive, or the state of their soul. We are sometimes incapable of discerning our own motives, especially when we fail to spend time in silence and prayer.  How much more incapable when it involves motives behind other people's words and actions. We cannot claim that someone in a position of authority is a coward because he did not do this or that.  We may make the observation that something was not done, but we get into trouble when we continue with the thought, "because...." The moment we convince ourselves that the "why" behind the inaction is some kind of bad conduct, in the absence of reasonable, manifest proof, we have likely crossed the line into rash judgment because only God can know motive.

We encounter a gap in an otherwise contiguous line, and we want to fill in the blank. When we do, we may be inclined to use the most negative filler, rather than the most positive one, especially if we don't particularly like the person involved.  That we believe the most negative thing about someone else's words or actions has it's roots in our human fallen nature. That inclination is concupiscence in action. That is why it is important to recognize when we are being tempted to make a judgment from suspicion and to fight it by virtuously looking for a more positive interpretation.  This is the prudent response. Wisdom which is the engine behind prudence, does not permit us to react rashly. 

I have often wondered whether we have engaged in rash judgment online without realizing it because we do not understand it and have not contemplated the matter. Typically, when the 8th Commandment is taught to young people, the focus is on telling the truth and not to tell lies.  However, few sources really discuss rash judgment.

If you are unfamliar with the 10 Commandments, you can read through this Examination of Conscience for Sacramental Confession based on the Commandments (Scroll down to the 8th Commandment).   Of the many such examens I found online, not all of them cover rash judgment.

With this post, I am not intending to offer an exhaustive look at the subject of judgment, which is broad.  St. Thomas Aquinas has six articles on judgment (60).  I'm narrowing the scope to what he calls, "judgment from suspicion". The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) refers to it as, "rash judgment".  Therefore, our focus will be on Articles 2-4.  We will not be discussing the kind of judgment which takes place in law enforcement or the judicial system.

It might help to read all six articles - slowly, and more than once as an overview.  Use a dictionary, as needed.  If you don't understand it all, that's ok.  Just try to familiarize yourself.  For those who have never read any part of the Summa, you may want to read this brief, How to read Aquinas

Let us look at some other texts to help set this up before getting to the Summa.  All bold text within quoted material is my emphasis.

Passages from Sacred Scripture

These passages are related to rash judgment, and there are more, but you get the idea with these. I think they are often misunderstood and loosely thrown around online. 

Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye?  (Matt 7:1-4)

Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. (Rom 14:13)

For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13)

The CCC on Rash Judgment

What does the CCC say about rash judgment?  It is covered in Section Two - The Ten Commandments under Article 8:III Offenses Against Truth.  I will give you CCC 2477 and 2478 in full so you have context, but we will set aside discussion of calumny and detraction for later.

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury (277). He becomes guilty:
- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
- of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
- of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. and if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved. [Attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 22 in footnotes]

Footnote 277 in the above is cross referenced to the Code of Canon Law.  Canon 220 states:

Can. 220 No one may unlawfully harm the good reputation which a person enjoys, or violate the right of every person to protect his or her privacy

I'm planning to explore more deeply this area of "good reputation" under another set of subjects I found in the Summa because, there are some interestings twists. 

"Rash Judgment" in Modern Catholic Dictionary

Servant of God, John A. Hardon S.J. wrote the Modern Catholic Dictionary- a very handy book to have.  It is also online at Catholic Culture with a search bar.  Indeed, when I looked it up, our topic was there. Here is what Fr. Hardon says:

Unquestioning conviction about another person's bad conduct without adequate grounds for the judgment. The sinfulness of rash judgment lies in the hasty imprudence with which the critical appraisal is made and in the loss of reputation that a peson suffers in the eyes of the one who judges adversely.

Going back to what I said earlier about wisdom being the engine behind prudence, I found Fr. Hardon's explanation of imprudence very fitting to pull out, in part.

Sins against prudence that are either by defect or by excess. Sins by defect against prudence are: rashness, which acts before due consideration has been given; thoughtlessness, which neglects to take the necessary circumstances into account; and negligence, which does not give the mind sufficient time for mature deliberation.

Does that sound like some things you have seen in Catholic new media, social media, and especially in comboxes? 

Let's move on to some quotes, starting with St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas Aquinas on Rash Judgment

In Article 2 (under, "I answer that..."), St. Thomas says judgment is faulty and unlawful, "...thirdly, when the reason lacks certainty, as when a man, without any solid motive, forms a judgment on some doubtful or hidden matter, and then it is called judgment by 'suspicion' or 'rash' judgment."

This is a question we need to ask ourselves, and others, when we suspect rash judgment is present:  How do I (or you) know that?   I think, online especially, we need to start gently challenging one another with this question.  Consider how we enable someone in their rash judgments when we do not challenge them?  Another consideration is whether our reading or watching some content leads us to rashly judge others.  In other words, you could put yourself into the occasion of sin by digesting material that is laden with rash judgments.  Do we lead others into rash judgment with our content? Ignorance of the sinfulness of judgment from suspicion is leading many into bitterness of others. St. Thomas goes into this next.

In responding to Objection 1 in Article 2, which referenced Matthew 7:1 ("Judge not, that you be not judged), Aquinas writes:

Reply to Objection 1. In these words our Lord forbids rash judgment which is about the inward intention, or other uncertain things, as Augustine states (De Serm. Dom. in Monte ii, 18). Or else He forbids judgment about Divine things, which we ought not to judge, but simply believe, since they are above us, as Hilary declares in his commentary on Matthew 5. Or again according to Chrysostom [Hom. xvii in Matth. in the Opus Imperfectum falsely ascribed to St. John of the Cross], He forbids the judgment which proceeds not from benevolence but from bitterness of heart.

Think for a moment how we judge the motives of those whom we like.  We are willing to give them the benefit of every doubt, sometimes to the point of excusing away that which should be confronted.  But when it involves someone whom we do not like, it's the opposite.  From there, contentious entries in new media and social media begin; and, comboxes become a cesspool of rash judgment, detraction, calumny, derision, quarreling and utter imprudence. 

In Article 3, Aquinas says:

On the contrary, Chrysostom [Hom. xvii in Matth. in the Opus Imperfectum falsely ascribed to St. John of the Cross] in comment on the words of Matthew 7:1, "Judge not," etc., says: "By this commandment our Lord does not forbid Christians to reprove others from kindly motives, but that Christian should despise Christian by boasting his own righteousness, by hating and condemning others for the most part on mere suspicion."

St. Thomas then goes on to say that suspicion itself, "denotes evil thinking based on slight indications".  He says there are three causes:

  1. He is prone to think evil of others due to his own wickedness (we are often guilty of the very things we accuse others of).
  2. He is ill-disposed towards another (there is envy or anger)
  3. He has experienced the faults of others (Aquinas says the elderly can fall into this trap because they had time to experience more evil).

Aquinas then says that the more we engage in it, the more vicious it gets.


I feel this next part is so important, that it warrants quoting it in full.  He discusses the level of sinfulness of these kinds of suspicions (emphasis mine in bold):

Now there are three degrees of suspicion. The first degree is when a man begins to doubt of another's goodness from slight indications. This is a venial and a light sin; for "it belongs to human temptation without which no man can go through this life," according to a gloss on 1 Corinthians 4:5, "Judge not before the time." The second degree is when a man, from slight indications, esteems another man's wickedness as certain. This is a mortal sin, if it be about a grave matter, since it cannot be without contempt of one's neighbor. Hence the same gloss goes on to say: "If then we cannot avoid suspicions, because we are human, we must nevertheless restrain our judgment, and refrain from forming a definite and fixed opinion."  The third degree is when a judge goes so far as to condemn a man on suspicion: this pertains directly to injustice, and is consequently a mortal sin.

Note that one of the qualifiers for the second degree to be a mortal sin, is that the rash judgment be about grave matter. Keep in mind that for a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be met: It must be objectively grave matter and the person must have full knowledge that it is grave matter and consent to it. 

A question that arises in my mind is whether the second degree is sinful if it is strictly interior? What if the suspicion is harbored internally and is not passed along to anyone else?  Going back to Fr. Hardon's definition of rash judgment, he said that it was "...loss of reputation that a peson suffers in the eyes of the one who judges adversely."  This would seem to indicate that another party need not be involved for us to sin in this regard, venially or gravely.

Something else that jumped out at me, was his emphasis on "slight" indications.  We have very little evidence to prove what we believe, but we are certain of that belief.

In Article 4, Aquinas looks at whether doubts should be interpreted for the best.  I want to focus on his Reply to Objection 2 where he says, "It is one thing to judge of things and another to judge of men".  There is no harm done to things regardless of which way they are judged.  However, when it comes to judging men he says:

On the other hand when we judge of men, the good and evil in our judgment is considered chiefly on the part of the person about whom judgment is being formed; for he is deemed worthy of honor from the very fact that he is judged to be good, and deserving of contempt if he is judged to be evil. For this reason we ought, in this kind of judgment, to aim at judging a man good, unless there is evident proof of the contrary. And though we may judge falsely, our judgment in thinking well of another pertains to our good feeling and not to the evil of the intellect, even as neither does it pertain to the intellect's perfection to know the truth of contingent singulars in themselves.
On his Reply to Objection 3 in Article 4, I must admit that he lost me.  I read that a few times, and perhaps I was looking at it all too long.  Someone enlighten me, in the combox.

Quotes from others

St. Teresa of Avila (Interior Castle, Chapter III, p 5)

Those who are careful not to offend God, and who enter the religious state, think there is nothing more to do. How many maggots remain in hiding until, like the worm which gnawed at Jonas's ivy, 8 they have destroyed our virtues. These pests are such evils as self-love, self-esteem, rash judgment of others even in small matters, and a want of charity in not loving our neighbour quite as much as ourselves.

St. John of the Cross

173. Do not be suspicious of your brother, for you will lose purity of heart.

There is an entire chapter on "rash judgment" from a book, The Secret of Sanctity of St. John of the Cross, by Fr. Lucas of St. Joseph, O.C.D., Bruce, Milwaukee, 1962, pp. 41-46.  The priest was martyred in Spain in 1936.  Just a cautionary note, the quoted text appears on a defunct sedevacantist site and I could not find it elsewhere.

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

This higher light produces benevolence, whereas rash judgment most seriously opposes this benevolent view....It should be clearly noted that rash judgment is not a simple unfavorable impression; it is a judgment. It consists in affirming evil on a slight indication; in reality a person sees two objects, but because of pride affirms that he sees four.

What he says about seeing four objects where there are only two is the very thing that makes me wonder whether people understand the difference between "objective" and "subjective". Is that sometimes the problem?   I would like to see some simple descriptions, perhaps with some benign examples (not hot-button issues please), to help others understand the difference between objective and subjective. 

St. Francis de Sales

I found it interesting how St. Francis de Sales broke down the various ways and reasons people would engage in, "hasty judgments".  Here are just two of the many interesting points he made:

We must proceed to rectify rash judgments, according to their cause. Some hearts there are so bitter and harsh by nature, that everything turns bitter under their touch; men who, in the Prophet's words, "turn judgment to wormwood, and leave off righteousness in the earth." (4) Such as these greatly need to be dealt with by some wise spiritual physician, for this bitterness being natural to them, it is hard to conquer; and although it be rather an imperfection than a sin, still it is very dangerous, because it gives rise to and fosters rash judgments and slander within the heart.

In that one, I believe that St. Francis is talking about one of the four temperaments. I get this from the fact that he says it is natural to them and hard to conquer.  Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe in that paragraph he is discussing the choleric temperament.   Each of the temperaments has strengths and weaknesses.  The idea is to make use of the strengths and counter the weaknesses with the practice of virtues.  There are saints among all four of these temperaments, so none is better than the other.  Each of us will probably fit several of them, but one will be more dominant.

Others there are who are guilty of rash judgments less out of a bitter spirit than from pride, supposing to exalt their own credit by disparaging that of others. These are self-sufficient, presumptuous people, who stand so high in their own conceit that they despise all else as mean and worthless. It was the foolish Pharisee who said, "I am not as other men are." (5)

This reminds me of something St. John of the Cross wrote in the Dark Night of the Soul about beginners in the spiritual life:

AS these beginners feel themselves to be very fervent and diligent in spiritual things and devout exercises, from this prosperity (although it is true that holy things of their own nature cause humility) there often comes to them, through their imperfections, a certain kind of secret pride, whence they come to have some degree of satisfaction with their works and with themselves. And hence there comes to them likewise a certain desire, which is somewhat vain, and at times very vain, to speak of spiritual things in the presence of others, and sometimes even to teach such things rather than to learn them. They condemn others in their heart when they see that they have not the kind of devotion which they themselves desire; and sometimes they even say this in words, herein resembling the Pharisee, who boasted of himself, praising God for his own good works and despising the publican

I am curious as to what else we can find on rash judgment by other saints, or in documents.   Find some things, but be mindful that if any one person makes a bunch of consecutive comments some will not only end up in my spam folder, but I think people could pass them up.  So spread them out. 

Sept 6, 2011: 10:00 p.m.: Post edited for clarity on a few points, and the quote by St. John of the Cross at the end was added.  Also re-added the quote from James under Scripture section after it was somehow lost.

Before commenting Catholics in the Combox series, please read my notes and guidelines for contributing. We are avoiding "hot-button" issues and fingerpointing (not even veiled) so that we may focus on the topic,which is, "rash judgment", for this post.  As explained in my introductory post to the series, it is not just for comboxers, but for anyone involved in creation of new media and social media

All Scripture quotes cited by me are from the RSV-Catholic edition. The emphasis will be on St. Thomas Aquinas  and the Summa, found in it's entirety at New Advent, but other references will be included.

*Note: 12/31/14 - This post was renamed and relabeled to the Catholic Virtual War series

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