15 Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. 16 They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. 17 Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” 18 Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. 20 He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” 21 They replied, “Caesar’s.”* At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)
A popular attack today in response to Christian moral teaching making inroads against the worldly view is to take an aspect of the Christian message, give it a personal interpretation, and then label Christians who do not believe that personal interpretation to be valid as hypocrites. This is how we see the citation of Pope Francis’ saying “Who am I to judge?” being (wrongly) interpreted and thrown in the face of Catholics (like the US Bishops) who oppose “same sex marriage.” We see Matthew 7:1 being thrown at Christians who say an action is morally wrong, accusing them of being judgmental.
The tactic is popular because they give a soundbite that sounds convincing to the uninformed or misinformed person and seems to "put Christians in their place,” (a popular comment on Facebook). But the problem is, nobody bothers to question whether the personal interpretation is true. After all, it is only if the interpretation is true that one can justly accuse Christians of hypocrisy on the issue.
Once we recognize this, it becomes obvious that the personal interpretation cannot be an objective standard for assessing the truth. There are simply too many contradictory “personal interpretations” out there and in a contradiction, both positions cannot be true. The correct interpretation corresponds with the intended teaching. If the intended teaching is, “X is a sin,” the personal interpretation that “X is not a sin” must logically be false. So, when a person seeks to cite Scripture, Church teaching or a statement by the Pope to entrap a Christian in a complex question, the first question must be, “Is this personal interpretation accurate?” If it is not, it is just a cheap soundbite which leaves us with the tedious task of explaining why the argument is false and trying to explain the truth while being accused of “explaining away challenges."
So, when someone throws Matthew 7:1 at us, throws “Who am I to judge?” at us or if Joan Chittister or her cronies throw Catholic Social teaching at us, the person of good will has to ask, “Is this being cited in context? Is it being used accurately?"
Actually, in Matthew 7:1, we know it is not because in the very same chapter, Jesus did judge behavior—the parable of pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6), the Narrow Gate (Matthew 7:13-14), the False Prophets (Matthew 7:15-20) and so on. Jesus condemns judgment that says “This person is beyond redemption.” But He did command that we choose good, reject evil and teach the nations to live according to His will (Matthew 28:19-20).
Likewise, when Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” is used, a reading of the transcript will show he was speaking about an individual who was reported to have a notorious past but had since repented. Likewise the dredged up Joan Chittister quote, because the Church recognizes there can be many ways of carrying out the Church’s pro-life mission, and we are not all bound to one tactic. But, no matter how many taxes one supports, nothing can be considered “truly pro-life” that supports abortion as a right.
Once we recognize the fact that the interpretation can only be accurate when it corresponds with reality, we have to ask, “Who has the authority to determine what interpretation of Scripture, Church teaching or Papal quote is authentic and which is not?” For the Catholic, we believe that the Pope and the bishops in communion with him have been given that responsibility and authority from Our Lord.
Certainly a person can reject the authority of the Church—not in the sense of “rightly reject,” but in the sense that Cardinal Ximenez and company won’t show up at their door...
…but the fact that such dissenters reject the authority of the Church does not make their view true. Such a person has to prove that their alternate view corresponds with reality. Unfortunately, they never do. So the person of good will has to investigate such cheap shot soundbites and see if the “gotcha” is actually valid. Such a person needs to realize that speculation is not the same thing as an authoritative source of what the Church believes.