Ethics: Judgment, Morality and Justice

Not surprisingly as he is the primary force in the forging of Christian moral theology, St. Paul adopts three positions which appear to be incompatible:

  1. Only God can judge human behaviour (1 Corinthians 4:1-5)
  2. We must condemn immoral behaviour (inter alia 1 Corinthians 5; 6:9-10)
  3. We must subject ourselves to civil justice (Romans 13:1-7).

The first proposition is based on the specific teaching of Jesus, most clearly articulated in Matthew 7:1. This precept is reflected in the life of Jesus who socialised with sinners; he forgave sin but did not condemn it, for instance, in the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11) and there are many other references to the forgiveness of sins. When Jesus makes social criticisms they concern the misuse of power by the governing class (e.g. Matthew 23:23). On the face of it, there is not much Gospel support for Paul's second position.

At the very least, then, insofar as we have power to forgive, regardless of our conclusion in respect of setting moral standards, we ought unconditionally to forgive.

Is it possible to set a standard for moral behaviour but fail to judge compliance with that standard? Might we, for example, make a social rule that people should not insult each other (on the pretext, say, of race, gender, sexuality, disability) and then refuse to say or do anything when the rule is publicly flouted? Or is there a difference between taking action against an infraction while, at the same time, refusing to judge the person but merely the act? How viable is it to adhere to the principle that we can dispense justice without judging the person? In administering justice our starting point must be that we take identical actions by people with nearly identical backgrounds as being of similar weight; justice may then take less obvious circumstances into account but judgment is difficult because we do not know 'the hand dealt by God' to the individual. Paul's third position rests upon Jesus' classic formulation in Matthew 22:16-22.

Finally, at the centre of our problem is the notion of a universal moral code which can be applied from a theological or a juridical perspective. It would seem, as noted above, that Jesus did not accept this notion but the history of Christianity demonstrates that repeated efforts have been made in this direction.

Here, then, are some propositions for discussion:

  1. Judgment of the person is distinct from justice administered in respect of an action
  2. Because we are all different and our behaviour is only a symptom of individual complexity, justice is necessarily rough
  3. Society needs moral codes for its survival but these are utilitarian not God-given
  4. As a divinely founded, human institution, the Church should exclude itself from or exercise caution in tempering its mission of love with any notion of judgment, morality or justice.

KC x/07

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