In reaction to the recent encounter in Washington, D.C., between Nathan Phillips and the Catholic high-school student from Kentucky, much of the journalism world—both left- and right-leaning—has exposed itself once again as shamefully biased and shockingly unprofessional. That would be bad enough, but here’s a more painful reality: by calling out the boys on social media, thousands of people committed an objective sin that is increasingly viral. It is called rash judgment.
“He becomes guilty of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor.” This definition from the Catechism provides an excellent summary of what just occurred in the case at hand. The maxima culpa of the boy most prominently featured in images was assumed even though he never uttered a single word in the entire encounter. And it’s fair to say that, had the ensuing exculpatory videos not emerged, the boy would never have been vindicated in the court of public opinion that now judges hearts, souls, and—in true Orwellian fashion—facial expressions! (In fact, even with the narrative-correcting videos available, many have doubled down on condemning what they are convinced was the boy’s racist display of contempt.)
Sad as it is to say, this reaction from some in the national media—while terrible—is not terribly surprising. What is surprising is this: rather than raise an objection to the unfair and unfounded treatment of this young man by journalists, the social media pages of thousands of individuals filled with frenzied denunciations.
One thing is sure in all this: if rash judgment is the liquor that intoxicates our souls, social media is the bottle from which we drink.
What is there in fallen man that finds pleasure in judging the motives, the innermost intentions, the hearts of others? In the Introduction to the Devout Life, Saint Francis de Sales posited that, for some, the answer might lie in their own troubled consciences: “No surer sign of an unprofitable life than when people give way to censoriousness and inquisitiveness into the lives of other men.” The sins of others are diversions from our own.
To be sure, there are times we are morally permitted—even morally required—to judge actions that occur in the public square, but that is far different from rashly judging the heart of another. The oddity is that we live in a society that often refuses to assess morality on an objective basis, but only judges hearts and souls.
So what can we learn from this debacle? Each of us is only one member of a very large society, and we might not be able to do much to change the world. But one thing we can do is change our own little societies of family and friends. And perhaps this would be a great time to think about the people in our own lives we might be tempted to judge rashly: our neighbor who seems too lazy to support himself, the teenager with a drug addiction, an unwed mother, our father, our brother, our friend.
In our personal dealings, we should adopt the advice of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote, “…shun rash judgment. Even if you should see your neighbor doing what is wrong, refuse to pass judgment on him; excuse him instead. Excuse his intention even if you cannot excuse the act, which may be the fruit of ignorance or surprise or chance.” Beyond that, Saint Francis de Sales wrote that virtuous people must “refuse to be mixed up with the clouds and fogs of their neighbor’s questionable doings” and instead, “consecrate their energies on their own improvement and good resolutions.”
That’s good advice for a society that claims to see everything clearly, but instead has become a maelstrom of allegation, judgment, and conviction.