Judge not

We have all heard that "Catholic" means, literally, "according to the whole." That one idea has many consequences.

A Catholic university, for example, looks at the world "according to the whole" -- not simply according to natural science, but also according to God's role in creation and God's providence.

Again, a Catholic should view his country "according to the whole." Patriotism is good and an important virtue. But at the same time he is not an "American Catholic" but a Catholic who is American. He sees himself from the point of view of the Church spread throughout the world.

The same point applies to history. Does his Catholic faith lift him out of the parochialism of time? After all, Catholics from 1517 were every bit Catholic as those from 1017 or 517, and those today. Does he look at 2017 from the point of view of the entire history of the Church?

Go to the valuable NewAdvent.org website. Click on the "Church Fathers" tab. Scroll through the hundreds of works of Ambrose, Athanasius, Basil, Clement, Cyril.... These writings will bring you up to around 517. Next, click on the "Summa" tab and peruse Aquinas' great work. That treatise will bring you a little past 1017. You're halfway home. Begin to ponder what it would mean to view our tiny slice now in the history of the Church "according to the whole."

What I am referring to makes a huge difference for the soundness of a Catholic's judgment. Often we accept a false idea simply because we never encountered anything else.

To prove the point, I take as my example a statement of Our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, "Do not judge." A common interpretation of that statement today is "It's not possible to judge": motives are hidden; they are subjective. We cannot see someone's heart.

We should therefore refrain from judging. Catholics should go through life with a "live and let live attitude." Do your best in your own circumstances and refrain from drawing conclusions about others. You cannot know such things. That's what Our Lord is saying.

This seems plausible enough. At least, such an outlook jibes with our culture. It's easy to interpret the saying in that way. But is it Catholic? Does it reflect the mind of the Church over the centuries? How could we tell?

An initial doubt arises from what Our Lord says next. "Do not judge ... lest you be judged." This seems to presuppose that you can judge. If Our Lord had wanted to propose the modern idea, he would have said, "Do not judge, because you cannot judge."

Another doubt is that, if we shouldn't judge that anyone has acted badly, then we shouldn't judge that anyone has acted well. Thus, this interpretation would rule out praise as much as blame.

Or we might wonder what parents are supposed to do, if they cannot judge and make corrections. Or how could juries in criminal court discern motives, and decide between mere negligence and deliberate malice?

In matters of interpretation of Scripture, there is an easy way for Catholics to get a quick grasp of the mind of the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas composed a commentary on the four Gospels called the Catena Aurea, or "Golden Chain." I have referred to it in this column before. It is a marvelous work of synthesis. What St. Thomas did was to comb through all the works of the Fathers. Whenever he found a statement related to any verse in a Gospel, he pulled it out and grouped it with other statements by other Fathers on the same verse. Then he wove these various statements into what reads like a continuous commentary.

It is a supreme work of genius. The task would not be too difficult today, with electronic texts and computers. But it was a vast accomplishment in 13th century.

To find the Catena, go to another valuable website, the Dominican House of Studies (in Washington, DC) website containing the works of St. Thomas in English and Latin: dhspriory.org/Thomas/. Look for "Biblical Commentaries" and under that "Catena Aurea: Matthew." Go to the commentary on chapter 7 verse 1. What you find may surprise you.

I'll leave the full research to you. But look at what St. Augustine says: "I suppose the command here to be no other than that we should always put the best interpretation on such actions as seem doubtful with what mind they were done. But concerning such as cannot be done with good purpose, as adulteries, blasphemies, and the like, He permits us to judge; but of indifferent actions which admit of being done with either good or bad purpose, it is rash to judge, but especially so to condemn."

St. Augustine presupposes that there are three kinds of actions, malum per se (wrong in themselves); indifferent; and bonum per se (good in themselves). If you want to learn more about this classical distinction, look at St. Thomas' discussion of it in the Summa. (You may find it in "the first part of the second part," or I-II, question 18, on "The good and evil of human acts in general".) St. Augustine takes Our Lord's statement to apply only to acts that in their kind are indifferent.

Follow out these leads and you are on your way to acquiring a view of our present time "according to the whole."

- Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is available from Regnery Gateway.