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Non-Judgmental Shepherds

The other day I heard a radio commercial advertising “sedation dentistry.” The reworking of your teeth takes place in one session while you are asleep.  You meet first with the doctor for a “non-judgmental” evaluation. When he inspects your crooked and missing teeth, he promises, he won’t gasp in horror or give you a lecture. He’s certainly not revealing an inability to properly evaluate teeth by refusing to judge the condition of our smiles. But the term is ambiguous and it’s contrary, “judgmental,” has become, increasingly, a dread weapon of moral destruction.

Many people today also expect religion to be “non-judgmental.” Self-esteem, apparently, is in short supply at the moment.  So there is a demand that priests (and ministers – and imams?) be inspiring and vibrant and – above all – non-judgmental. All this, in order to enable us to “feel good about ourselves” – regardless of behavior.

Someone recently told me about a Catholic religion teacher who was called by a concerned parent. The teacher was presenting the Catholic faith in a methodical fashion. An upcoming topic was to be love and marriage. The parent wanted assurances that his young daughter would not be taught that the lesbian lifestyle of her older sister is immoral.

If the younger sister came home with a crisp understanding of Christian marriage, she would become hopelessly “judgmental” – a truly horrible person – at least in Dad’s judgment. And she might even find herself denied entry to one or more colleges on the basis of her “intolerance.” You see, believing and living the Catholic faith is “judgmental” and it ruins education – and careers.

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The demand for non-judgmental authority figures, however, defies logic. If a criminal tries to break into your house and you call 911 for assistance, you wouldn’t want a “non-judgmental” police officer to be dispatched to accompany the burglar on his journey.  In small claims court where you sue to retrieve a $500 over-charge, you wouldn’t want the magistrate to be “non-judgmental.” When a doctor discovers a dangerous cancer that needs immediate treatment, the last thing you want is someone who is “non-judgmental.”

Indeed, “non-judgmental” authority figures under these circumstances would be negligent – perhaps criminally so.  Lobbyists for a “non-judgmental” morality would agree, but in so doing they render the term “non-judgmental” unintelligible, except as a “new morality” code word.

The Good Shepherd by Eric Gill, 1926 [2]
The Good Shepherd by Eric Gill, 1926

God created the mind to think and distinguish clearly and make judgments with sufficient evidence. Making judgments with insufficient evidence is usually sinfully rash (although sometimes even that isn’t sinful – ask any anti-terrorist investigator who may have to act on the best evidence available, to keep us safe). The inability or refusal to judge is either virtuous or vicious. We are unable to judge, for example, the state of a person’s soul. We will never have sufficient evidence to judge whether anyone is condemned to Hell. God alone judges a person’s soul. This is why Jesus Himself teaches, “Judge not and ye will not be judged.”

But when we have sufficient evidence – as when a doctor diagnoses a patient – we have an obligation to make a judgment. When there is sufficient evidence that certain behaviors are sinful, we have an obligation to so judge. While it’s certainly possible to be uncharitable and even cruel with properly formed judgments, the failure in charity doesn’t make us “judgmental.”  The error is not in the judgment; the error is in the evil use of a correct judgment.

Increasingly the non-judgmental “ideal” is used to silence the proclamation of the Gospel, betraying the diabolical root of the term. When a person is described as “non-judgmental” the term may evoke an attribute of kindness in general. Such a person “affirms people where they are at” regardless of behavior.

But below the surface of a so-called “non-judgmental” person are indulgence and apathy, an inability to see evil, personal narcissism, the pathological desire to be liked, going along to get along, as long as everyone is comfortable.  This is why there are so many “non-judgmental” priests, despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the People of God on each of them during their seminary education, an education that should have included solid courses on logic and Catholic moral theology. To describe Jesus Himself as “non-judgmental” is not only inaccurate, it is exceedingly shallow and insulting.

Similarly, to label a priest “non-judgmental” is damning. It means he is incapable of thinking clearly, affirms his people in their moral errors, and doesn’t take stands opposing the new morality of polite secular opinion. It means he doesn’t have the courage to warn his people against the danger of mortal sin and the fires of Hell.

“Non-judgmental” clergymen do not concern themselves with lost sheep. “Non-judgmental” clerics have made their peace with evil and are comfortable with the adulation of their sheep. They are hirelings, evil shepherds and anti-Christs. (I hope I’m not missing nuances.)

There is good reason the Lord calls Himself the “Good Shepherd” rather than the “Non-Judgmental Shepherd.” Christ was kind to the crippled and infirm; merciful but firm with the woman caught in adultery (“Go and sin no more”); courageous in calling out the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers.” He warned of the fires of Hell for those who were hateful. He was inflexible in condemning adultery. And He suffered gallantly on the Cross for all our sins – including the abundance of our rash judgments and failures in Christian charity. Christ is truth personified.

In contrast to the secular “non-judgmental” moral code, the vocabulary of the Faith is refreshingly clear. To be “good” includes virtues such as justice, mercy, honesty, reverence, kindness, generosity, prudence, courage, temperance, chastity, charity, and truth. Christ is the Good Shepherd precisely because He reveals and teaches the goodness of the Heavenly Father.  And we can be good too if we honestly follow Him on His path to heavenly glory. It is virtuous and holy to encourage our loved ones to do so as well.

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.