Actual sins fall into two distinct categories: mortal and venial. So teaches the Church. We individual men and women, however, often classify sins under two different categories: mine and someone else’s.
Our own sins often seem quite tame in comparison to the horrifying sins of others. Our own sins seem so understandable, while the sins of others seem inexplicable. What’s more, we would never dare think about the sins of our past; after all, there’s a statute of limitations on sin—at least we think there should be. Others, however, should answer today for their sins of yesterday.
The recent news cycle has been illustrative of this attitude, or maybe it’s just recently that I have noticed. But after a few hours of watching “The News,” as it used to be called, it is clear that there is a whole lot of judgement going on. The stories are formulaic, carefully chosen to support the worldview of the particular network on which they appear.
For most of recorded history, the days of human beings were not filled with continuous coverage about the moral turpitude of others. And somehow, we made it through the day. But today, judging the accused is increasingly becoming part and parcel of American life.
Based on the style of presentation, there is little room for discernment, but lots of room for judging. In just a few short moments, we can think we know the facts of every case, the motivations of every crime, the backstory of every defendant. Growing up, I always admired Perry Mason, who could solve any crime in one hour. But today, we’ve become much more efficient: Guided by the experts at the national networks who have already done the thinking for us, we don’t even need the full 60 minutes.
What’s more, we have become modern-day Solomons, wise kings of our living rooms, ready to judge others. After a few hours of watching the network news, we may have judged 15 or 20 people. Thus, judging people becomes a hobby.
And we often feel completely justified in doing so. We might contend that we hunger and thirst for justice. But the truth is that hungering and thirsting for justice is pretty darn easy, as long as it doesn’t involve us and our sins. Once it involves our own sins, we often have no appetite at all.
It’s difficult to see how God would be pleased with this.
By now, you might be thinking that this is ironic—that, in this very discussion, I am being judgmental toward others. I’m not judging anyone. But I have noticed that the network news is often structured toward drawing viewers into being habitually judgmental. And the truth is that we are not qualified to judge others. The Catechism states that, “although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.”
That doesn’t mean that we should defend—or refuse to judge—the sin.
Quite the contrary: without exception, we should hate the sin. Yet, when was the last news report you saw that called something a “sin”? When was the last time a news report concluded that some person’s action constituted a violation of an immutable moral precept, and was thus intrinsically wrong, irrespective of who committed it? Instead of having that worthwhile discussion—that dialogue which society largely refuses to conduct—there seems instead to be a giddiness that some political foe got caught. That’s the story. In large measure, that’s why people are tuning in.
When we feel the urge to judge others, we need to remember the words of Our Lord: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Are we applying the standard of judgement that we wish to have applied to ourselves?
There’s one more point worth pondering in this discussion. It comes to us from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, which begins with this powerful observation:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’
Not bad advice at all, especially for those who possess and profess the True Faith. And wise words to ponder as we watch the news.