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Judging a sin without judging the sinner: How to do it like St. Thérèse

Martelo que simboliza a Justiça

Zolnierek | Shutterstock

Morgane Afif  - published on 04/20/23

While St. Paul says correcting a brother is a matter of fraternal charity, a person cannot be defined by his bad actions. How, then, can we judge a sin without judging the person who commits it?

“I heard of a great criminal who had just been sentenced to death for horrible crimes, and everything suggested that he would die in impenitence. I wanted at all costs to prevent him from falling into hell […]. I told God that I was sure he would forgive poor Pranzini, that I would believe this even if he did not confess and did not show any sign of repentance, so much did I trust in the infinite mercy of Jesus.” St. Thérèse was not yet 15 years old when Henri Pranzini was sentenced to death for having been found guilty of a sordid triple murder, including that of a nine-year-old child. Thérèse was granted her wish: Before going to the scaffold, Pranzini seized the crucifix held out to him by the chaplain and kissed it. 

The justice of God is not that of men

There is no doubt that Therese abhorred this triple homicide, which was widely covered by the press of the time. How could she not be indignant at the sacrifice of the innocent? However, the future Carmelite did not despair. Moreover, she did not pray for the commutation of Pranzini’s sentence, nor for him to be spared. Human justice had made its ruling, and Thérèse submitted to it. The young girl implored God that the murderer be saved in another way: not his body, but his soul; not his earthly life, but his eternal salvation. Thérèse prayed for Pranzini to enter Paradise, alongside his victims. 

Is that revolting? For human sensibility, certainly. But God’s justice is not the same as the justice we see here on earth, and there’s no lack of examples of the saints to illustrate this mystery of paschal love. We could mention St. Maria Goretti, killed in 1902 at the age of 12 by Alessandro Serenelli, who wanted to rape her. On her deathbed, she forgave him. Forty-five years later he attended her beatification and then left to end his days as a gardener in a Franciscan monastery.

The Catechism weighs in

Isn’t Satan the very one whose name in Hebrew means “accuser” and “adversary”? God does not accuse. He hates the sin, not the sinner. Yet, mortal sin – that is, “sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1857) — truly cuts us off from the love of God and excludes us from the communion of saints. The Catechism goes on to say about mortal sin:

If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1861

The words of Scripture

The Gospel is also clear on this matter:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5

Further, “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world,” Jesus “cries aloud” in the Gospel of John (John 12:47). 

The temptation of Eden

This temptation to decide for oneself what is good and what is evil is at the heart of the Genesis account, at the origin of the first sin. For it is from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that Adam and Eve ate the fruit held out to them by the serpent to break the divine covenant: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17).

By gaining access to this knowledge, Adam and Eve gained a form of moral autonomy, that is, a choice to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong without appealing to God’s wisdom or to faith in their Creator.

Now, judgment can also lead to revenge, because a person locks the other into his offense and, in one way or another, seeks to do justice for himself by taking the place that belongs to the Lord: “Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11-12)

JusticeTherese of Lisieux
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