Whenever I stir up the pot by writing about those who say they are ‘spiritual but not religious’ the combox fills up with the indignant comments from people who never actually address the points I make, but instead they stomp around in a self righteous air of high dudgeon defending themselves with sentimental arguments which usually end with “who are you to judge???’

Despite my admitted ignorance and arrogance, I do happen to be somewhat of a religious professional and if anybody might make a diagnosis on spiritual matters a priest might just be qualified to do so. The judgement might not be to one’s liking, but what if a doctor told you that smoking cigarettes and eating fast food non stop was bad for you and you ought to stop. You might not like it, and you might chortle on indignantly saying “Who are you to judge???” (Don’t forget to use lots of question marks and exclamation marks to make your point) but the doctor might just know what he’s talking about.

This is one of the burdens the members of the clergy have to bear: people seem to know what’s best for them in the realm of religion in a way that they would not in any other. They know what hymns they want. They know how the youth group should be run, how the sermon should be delivered, what form of architecture the new church should have and just how to live their lives, and who is the priest to judge?

There is an underlying problem here which is the assumed relativism of our culture. It is every man for himself and we all know best. Except of course when we need a car mechanic or open heart surgery. We trust the doctor, the computer geek and the engineer to fix what’s wrong.

Why not trust the priest sometimes too? Lord knows we’re often an incompetent and confused and unprofessional lot of fellows–but sometimes we do actually know what we’re talking about.

That being said, there are plenty of reasons that people may not trust a priest. There have been too many headlines about too many priests who have proved untrustworthy. There have been too many examples of not only priests, but pastors and religious leaders who have let everyone down. So why trust a priest? He might know what he’s talking about. He may be a professional in his field, but even that is not enough.

The only reason a person ought to listen to a Catholic priest is that he speaks with an apostolic authority. As a priest he speaks not with his own authority, but with that of the Catholic Church. If what the priest is saying is congruent with the Catholic faith and springs from his knowledge of the Catholic faith, then he is worth listening to–then he can make a judgement. Indeed, this is really the only way a priest is able to judge. His own opinion doesn’t really matter, but when he teaches the apostolic truth from a position of his authority in the church…then we must listen for he does not speak of his own authority or his own bright ideas, but he is a mouthpiece of the church.

This actually liberates both the priest and the one he is ‘judging’. If the priest has to make a difficult call in a pastoral, moral or theological circumstance he can and should rightly say, “This is not my opinion. This is not my idea. It is simply the teaching of the Church.” As such, that judgement can be as objective and un-sentimental as the judgement of a judge handing down a sentence or ruling on a point of law. It’s in the book. He can quote chapter and verse and he may dislike the judgement personally as much as the person he is judging.

This objectivity is what those who disagree with the Catholic Church on moral teachings find so objectionable and difficult to understand. If a Catholic priest says to a couple who are married outside church law that they should not present themselves for communion (for example) they may huff and puff and blame him for being judgmental–but he is simply stating the teaching of the church. If a Catholic priest says (for example) that abortion is wrong he can do so with an objectivity that frees him from sentimental judgments or personal opinions.

So the answer to the question, “Who are you to judge???” is “It’s not me who’s judging. It’s Christ’s Church.”