Admonish the Sinner – A Reflection on the First Spiritual Work of Mercy

“CautionTape” by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I wrote last week asking, Whatever happened to the spiritual works of mercy? I also indicated an intent to write on each of them. Here is the first installment: Admonishing the Sinner.

The word “admonish” comes from the Latin verb monere meaning to warn, advise, or alert someone to a threat or danger. As such, its purpose is the good of another; it is an act of love and concern. To admonish the sinner is not to belittle or humiliate him, but rather to alert him to the danger of a sinful course of action. It is rooted in love, not pride. And thus St. Thomas enumerates fraternal correction among the acts of charity.

In our culture, sadly, admonishing the sinner has fallen out of favor for numerous reasons. Philosophically and sociologically, many have relegated much of morality to the realm of private opinion. Admonishing is seen by many as an attempt by the admonisher to impose his or her values on others, or as some sort of unfair or arbitrary judgment.

From a psychological standpoint, we live in times of heightened sensitivity, times in which many take critiques of their behavior very personally and have difficulty distinguishing between concerns for behavior and disrespect for the person. The emergence of identity politics has done a lot to further this blurring of distinctions.

  1. If one voices concerns about single motherhood, it is often declared that this is giving personal offense to the poor, minority groups, women, etc. Never mind that many grave social ills come from children not living in a home with both their father and mother. Today, any critique of this obviously problematic behavior is taken very personally by many.
  2. The same is largely true with abortion. Those who warn against it are often said to offend women.
  3. And we need hardly describe the anger and outrage generated when one admonishes against homosexual behavior. So deep is identity politics with this behavior that in some countries it is illegal to speak of homosexual acts as sinful let alone admonish those who engage in or approve of them.

These are only the more obvious examples of a problem that has become deeply rooted in our culture. People do not like being corrected (and probably never have), but today they often take correction very, very personally. Over at The Divine Mercy site Dr. Robert Stackpole observes: The problem is that we live in a society dominated by people who have not made any real psychological or moral progress since they reached adolescence. Thus, they stumble through life with an adolescent understanding of love. To be “loved,” to them, means to be affirmed in everything they want to do…

Still, the obligation remains for us believers both to admonish sinners and to accept admonishment ourselves. We must remember that the goal is not to tell others how terrible they are; this is, after all, a work of mercy. Neither is the goal to win an argument or to feel superior. Rather, the goal is to win the sinner back from a destructive path, to announce the forgiveness of sins available to all who repent. The goal is salvation. As such, to admonish sinners is to call lovingly to those in danger and draw them back from the edge of the abyss.

Admonishing the sinner is not simply a nice thing to get around to if we have time. It is an essential work of grace and love, and it is commanded of us. Here are some relevant passages from Scripture:

  1. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:15-18). Jesus instructs us to speak to a sinning brother or sister and summon him or her to repentance. If private rebuke does not work, others who are trustworthy should be summoned to the task (assuming the matter is serious). Finally, the Church should be informed. If the person will not listen even to the Church, then he or she should be excommunicated (treated as a tax collector or Gentile). Hence in serious matters, excommunication should be considered as a kind of “medicine” that will inform the sinner of the gravity of the situation. Sadly, this medicine is seldom used today even though Jesus clearly prescribes it (at least in serious matters).
  2. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:1-2). Notice that we are called to recognize when a person has been overtaken by sin and to correct him. Note, too, that the text cautions us to do so in a spirit of gentleness; otherwise we may sin in the very process of correcting the sinner. Perhaps we are prideful or unnecessarily harsh in our words of correction; this is no way to correct; gentle and humble, but clear, seems to be the instruction here. It also seems that patience is called for, since we must bear the burdens of one another’s sin. We bear this burden in two ways. First, we accept the fact that others have imperfections and faults that trouble us. Second, we bear the obligation of helping others to know their sin and to repent.
  3. My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19). The text is ambiguous as to whose soul is actually saved, but that is good, since it seems that both the corrected and the corrector are beneficiaries of well-executed fraternal correction.
  4. You shall not hate your brother in your heart: you shall in any case rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17). The text instructs us that to refuse to correct a sinning neighbor is a form of hatred. Instead, we are instructed to love our neighbors by not wanting sin to overtake them.
  5. If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess 3:14).  Notice again that the medicine of rebuke, even to the point of refusing fellowship, is commanded (in serious matters). But note, too, that even a sinner does not lose his dignity; he is still to be regarded as a brother, not an enemy. 
  6. A similar text (2 Thess 3:6) says,  We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us.
  7.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom (Col 3:16). Again, to admonish means to warn. Hence, if the word of Christ is rich within us, we will warn when that becomes necessary.
  8. A similar text (2 Tim 3:16) says, All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good workReproof and correction is thus part of what is necessary to equip us for every good work.
  9. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14). Here, fraternal correction is described as admonishing, encouraging, and helpful. We are also exhorted to patience in these works.
  10. It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. … I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among youSo the Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, commands that we “judge”  the evildoer. In this case the matter is very serious (incest). Notice that the text says he should be excommunicated (handed over to Satan). Here, too, the purpose is medicinal. It is hoped that Satan will “beat him up” enough that he will come to his senses and repent before the day of judgment. It is also medicinal in the sense that the community is protected from bad example, scandal, and the presence of evil. The text also requires us to be able to size people up. There are immoral and unrepentant people with whom it is harmful for us to associate. We are instructed to discern this and not keep friendly company with people who can mislead us or tempt us to sin. This requires a judgment on our part. Some judgments are required of us.

With all this in mind, how can we say we love others if we see them running toward the edge of a moral and eschatological cliff and fail to cry out in warning? And why do we fail to cry out? Usually because we want our own lives to be more pleasant; we cannot bear the backlash that sometimes comes when we warn people who do not want to be warned. But if we yield to this fear, we are showing that we love ourselves too much and do not love God and others enough. I want to take this opportunity to say how grateful I am to my parents and others who endured my backtalk, admonishing me anyway.

Lord, give me the courage and humility to admonish sinners and the grace to do it in love. As well, help me to have the courage and humility to accept correction myself, and grant me the grace to see it as an act of love, even if it is not always artfully done.

33 Replies to “Admonish the Sinner – A Reflection on the First Spiritual Work of Mercy”

  1. Very well said. I suggest one addition: “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.” Ephesians 5:11

  2. The robot would be indicative of the secular aspect of authority today. They want everyone to believe conservative moral Christians are lost in space!

  3. Recently on an article about some of the lawsuits for refusing services to gay couples, someone commented with scorn that Christians are supposed to love others. It occurred to me to explain to them that they misunderstood the nature of love. I told them, if someone’s house was on fire, what kind of person would I be to not pound on the front door to warn them? No one responded to my reply.
    You are so right Msgr., even on Catholic blogs sometimes an author will rant about how justified they were to act in a certain way, a way that is clearly sinful, given the circumstances which they explain. Any admonition of them, for a lack of charity or humility perhaps, or for indulging in anger and pride, is usually quickly met with defensive accusations from other readers that the admonition is unjust, unkind and hurtful. I am always surprised no one wants to counsel them to correct their behavior. I think your explanation of “identity politics” is spot on, and further evidence moral relevance is creeping even into the Church and into so-called Catholic believers.

  4. I said, “..and further evidence moral relevance..”
    I meant to say, “….and further evidence MORAL RELATIVISM …”

  5. In contemporary America it appears the influence of liberal social sciences has driven wedge between the religious populace and traditional Christian theology. Sin as expressed in the Bible is hardly recognizable anymore. Four decades ago famed psychologist Karl Menninger was scratching his head has wondering what happened to sin. Now sinful behavior can be explained away using a variety of techniques whether it by political, psychological, and sociological to name a few.

    The unfortunate aspect of the erosion of the concept of sin has crept into various religious denominations including Roman Catholicism. Hence, the seeming over emphasis on God’s love in homilies to the under stated topic of His judgment. Regarding sin, for those who like to read, there is an unlimited access of information on it due to our faith’s abundance of resources on all topics of Catholic theology. I am thankful for that since in Los Angeles Diocese the subject is rarely broached while sitting in the pews.

  6. Well said. However, in case of the homosexual movement, admonishing could lend you some serious legal trouble. Do you admonish if you know that the state will persecute you for doing God’s work? Second, homosexual movement uses lot of volume and are so loud at claiming that homosexual sinning is good, so how do we redress loudness as a conduit of sin?

  7. as a catechist I teach this topic to the 4th graders every year as defined in our Diocesan guidelines, so its not me that keeps it under wraps! Here’s images I tweeted to a fellow legal alien some years ago on the patron Saints of the works of mercy featured in the stained glass windows of a chapel inside a Viennese lunatic asylum:

    I find Americans profoundly ignorant of more ‘artful’ ways to make any argument, pedagogical or otherwise. Arbitrary and capricious being the twin towering sins of right reason, from ‘arbiter’ or will to act out a conditional or self-referential purpose ie a biased agent, not unconditional or disinterested, the root of a great many spiritually-wounded victims sceptical of our faith’s claim to be a channel of healing mercy; and ‘caprice’ or fancy for a quantity or quality disproportionate to the purpose acted out ie playing favorites, corrupt, the root of a great many corporally-wounded victims averse to our faith’s claim to be bulwark of social justice. Before we can begin to credibly instruct the ignorant we must publically confess our own weaknesses — including those of our tradition’s recent history — as St JPII did re: the Holocaust etc.

    Exhibit 1: a map of the dead from WWI
    Now consider what amount of steel in military munitions would have been needed to wreak such havoc?
    We know all the working age men of those localities were no longer laboring in industry but were enlisted as warriors to die for King and Country so where did that steel come from?

    I contend that America’s great industries of the twentieth century such as Bethlehem Steel enriched themselves supplying both sides in the Great War by extending huge amounts of credit via America’s great financiers such as J.P. Morgan. When today’s Armenians bemoan the abject neglect of contrition and lack of reparations for grave sins committed against them a century ago, have you ever wondered why the land of the free never ever ‘fessed up to why such virtuous accountability is ‘not in the national interest’ ie it is our public policy to tolerate vice? European and Middle-eastern client-states would have to surrender a great deal of wealth accumulated dishonestly, sums large enough to bankrupt many of the “too big to fail” institutions America depends on to run our rather moribund economy.

    A great deal of financial malfeasance and civic governance malpractice is committed in America, in the West generally, under this essential pairing of man’s spiritual/corporal vices as Benedict XVI’s address to the parliament of his homeland adjured www{dot}bundestag{dot}de/kulturundgeschichte/geschichte/gastredner/benedict/speech/ Many who commit these public sins operate arbitrarilly and capriciously with impunity since practictally-speaking a whole bunch more difficult to admonish elite actors as their works are so secretive. IMHO Father you often leave yourself open to my sharp tongue since you dwell too often on sins of ‘the least of these’ seen readily in the daylight but fail to call down perdition on those in positions of authority in society… and within the Church… whose sins are must harder to detect, held in abeyance in the shadows of history.

    Its easy to ‘punch down’ as Ross Douthat described the empty rhetoric of the Charlie Hebdo satirists. Perhaps you might find that ‘punching up’ (as when David faced off with Goliath) may be more convincing to more of us ordinary sinners, to encourage us that valiance is more honorable than vice? But beware, even mob gangsters and Islamists adhere to an honor code of a 1-D God; 3-D docility in a much more complicated concept to instill in our neighbors living in ‘flatland.’

    Exhibit 2. Some years ago Cardinal George “expressed surprise at this lack of understanding (of ‘Universal Catholic Values’)” communio{dot}stblogs{dot}org/index.php/2012/12/cardinal-francis-george-detail/ but in response I must critique his rhetoric (www{dot}cruxnow{dot}com/church/2014/11/17/chicagos-exiting-cardinal-the-church-is-about-truefalse-not-leftright/) as flawed, a ‘disembodied-scholastic-intellect’ holds as little water in terms arbitrary and capricious as the ’embodied-political-appetite’ he wishes to correct (if there’s no such thing as ‘left’ and ‘right’ humans there’s also no ‘true’ and ‘false’ humans either, only true and false ACTs of humans, ie we need a verb, God’s grace, to sense anything, including sin). A decade ago the Church addressed this failure in catechisis with a conference focused on pedagogy of God held at the Vatican, Cardinal George ought not to have been surprised that Catholics known the facts of ‘catholicism’ but don’t know the value of them (ie facts are inanimate, they don’t speak for themselves – we need a narrator to teach us how to animate our rhetoric with the grammar of mercy and redemption) for the experts diagonosed the problem thus “Alongside these distorting influences we can see a widespread minimalism in some resources, where very little of the faith is presented, and also what Hans Urs von Balthasar called an “Islamization” of the notion of God, when he is seen in his unity, but no longer clearly as Triune.” This minimalism is in so-called ‘conservative’ texts that ape pre-VII and in the mass-produced Corporate publishers’ school texts re-appropriated for CCD classes. These tools are way past their sell-by date. We need new ‘3-D solid’ catechetical tools for this new catechical challenge. I do believe your blog (and the many others online resources including lives of the saints contributed by the lay authors on sites like Wikipedia where articles are translated into multiple obscure languages as quickly and widely as the first converts on that first Pentecost morn spoke in tongues) are the way of the future for remedial ADULT catechesis, so thank you for persisting in what is often a thankless task! I pin my favorites to my Pinterest boards, for example www{dot}pinterest{dot}com/pin/439452876110469295/

      1. Thanks for the feedback and engaging my poorly-expressed argument “Admonishing is seen by many as an attempt by the admonisher to impose his or her values on others, or as some sort of unfair or arbitrary judgment.”

        I attempted to parse ‘unfair’ and ‘arbitrary’ from the POV of those who may not be docile to the Church’s teaching on good works — as I once was not — using examples from history and current affairs. The Turkish state didn’t like being admonished by Pope Francis (quoting an opinion of Saint JPII) did they? Certain sensitivities that drive opinion “philosophically and sociologically” out of the public square aren’t new, nor limited to pelvic issues. They have an ancient pedigree. I think you’d persuade more poorly-catechized Catholics of the wisdom of the Magisterium if you drew attention to the grave sins of the body politic as often as you focus on those of individual citizens, as JPII’s book Memory and Identity attempted to do.

        1. What do you men by the body politic? Social gospel: isn’t there enough of that already?

      2. Come on, cut some slack for Ross Douthat and Bethlehem Steel. At least Bernie Medoff is firmly ensconced in jail where he won’t be able to steal other peoples money anymore.

  8. oops re: islamization of catechetical materials, some self-adminishment is due.
    Here’s the missing citation of Annamarie Adkins 2008 interview with Petroc Willey I quoted from www{dot}zenit{dot}org/en/articles/god-s-pedagogy

  9. Msgr Pope, “single motherhood” is not “obviously problematic BEHAVIOR”. It is a condition or state in life, not a behavior. More than a few women are single mothers because their husband died from an accident, disease, war, etc. And as to “Never mind that many grave social ills come from children not living in a home with both their father and mother”, never mind that many grave social ills come from children living in a home with both their father and mother. Just because a child lives with a father and a mother doesn’t mean the child is not abused. Most, if not all, fathers and mothers abuse their children in some form or another, often severely.

    1. You’re kind of illustrating my point though aren’t you. You fake email also tells me you aren’t serious. Obviously the kind of situations you describe are very tiny in percentage re the problem. Further they are not moral situations since they are not chosen or the result of immoral actions.

      1. Dear Msgr., I think Sam’s point is that ‘single motherhood’ comprises both moral and immoral situations, but that the way you refer to single motherhood in the article leads the reader to believe that all single mothers are involved in immoral situations. We should know what you mean of course, but taken from the point of view of a single mother who is not a single mother due to any immorality on her part, the seeming appearance in your article of the equation “single motherhood=immorality” may be hurtful to some people who are not immoral.

        Pax Christi to all.

        1. No Yan, I wholly reject your premises and there is no Pax Christi in your hypercritical assessment. You and other the other readers who are on this absolutizing kick of what I have written are the perfect illustration of the kind of hyper-sensitivity I talk about in the article. And it is only an article, I do cover every possible scenario and depend on a little sophistication from readers to make a few distinctions of their own and do as you are doing: absolutizing. The context of my remark is clear enough, I am not talking about someone who is a single mother due to the death of the Father. There is no sin in that, there is no sinner to admonish. Yeesh….

      2. I would tend to agree with her that single motherhood is not a behavior though. For all you know, she is a single mother because she was raped and chose to bring the baby to term; or because she made a foolish decision in the heat of passion and has since repented.

        Also a very good reason not to shame single mothers is that there is an easy way to not be a single mother and it’s called abortion, if you want less of that you’ve got to accept the single mothers.

        1. For heaven’s sake, such hyper-sensitivity. Come on, lets all grow up now and make some distinctions. I am not shaming anyone, that is a ridiculous and immature overreaction to anything I have written here.

          1. Msgr., your exchange with *yan* and *cermak_rd* so clearly illustrates the attitude we see so much on the internet (and so much more in the public square now) that nothing apparently critical or corrective is accepted in the spirit and with the meaning it is written. I think it’s this sort of thinking that is making issues so inflammatory these days, and I love how you ADMONISH the commenters for their (seeming) inability to make distinctions and hypersensitivity.
            I think the sort of reaction demonstrated by *yan* and *cermak_rd* is almost a technique now used on the internet to make people back off their legitimate and rational positions. Some of it’s effectiveness comes from the anonymity of the internet, and not having a face to face conversation. Some of it’s effectiveness comes from is roping the author into clarifications and explanations that often serve to muddy the issue, rather than clarify it. And often it’s effective because the commenter will go round after round, repeating themselves, no matter what is said to refute them, refusing to acknowledge that the author has a point. Interesting times.

          2. Thank you for this. I think you articulate very well the difficulties of having a clear discussion of issues without all the attitude stuff. These two commenters are very illustrative of the problem as you point out. .

  10. Thank you for clearing up what admonishment really means. I was under the impression for many years that it was meant in a belittling kind of way, probably because I heard and saw it stated that way.

    Working in healthcare, I’ve seen admonishment in both ways. The “good” (and correct, according to your definition) kind involves teaching the patient why something such as hypertension is bad to have as a long-term condition. The “bad” kind (the belittling version) involves making patients feel bad for life choices or lifestyles. I find that when people have options and things available to them to help them improve that they are much more likely to make those lifestyle changes, myself included in that statement. Great post, and just wanted to put my ER medicine 2 cents in…

  11. Thank you, Monsignor Pope, for this and all your previous posts, radiating, as always, with the Love of Christ. May the Good Lord ever fortify you with His Spirit as you endeavor to conscientiously cultivate His vineyard. UIOGD.

  12. I would like to express my sincere appreciation to Msgr. for this article. We may be reluctant to admonish others because of the concerns for the psychological/self-esteem needs of the person, or because we are afraid of a backlash. Esteem needs are important, but they pale in comparison to spiritual needs. Over the long term, focusing on the emotional life of the person while ignoring core spiritual needs is very destructive, both to the person herself, and to society. Today, admonishing the sinner may be one of the more important things we do as laity, to help our brothers and sisters in an expanding hedonistic society. How to go about it is becoming increasingly difficult because of social backlash. Msgr’s first example on “single mothers” is a case in point.

    Of course, Msgr’s use of the expression “single mother” is very common and readily communicates the meaning he intends. There is a recent article in the Washington Post “The unbelievable rise of single motherhood in America over the last 50 years” that illustrates the common use of the term. I recommend it especially for sam, yan, and cernack .

  13. Great post, Msgr. My wife hates conflict with a passion. If she can’t control it, then she asks, why get so worked up about it? She is afraid of offending. A good discussion or debate causes her great distress. So, as to not upset her, I keep my mouth shut. Not a good excuse, I know. Just the reason why.

    Msgr. Pope from this point on please forgive me it I offend you, I don’t mean too. I’m just wondering when the “good priest and bishops of the Catholic Church” are going to form a pact and stand together (200, 300, 800 strong) and begin to admonish the sinner priests and bishops in our Church. Does your bishop relish a good discussion and debate? Or not so much? If not, it might be a good time to find one who does. Your admonishment of Cardinal Dolan was very welcome, although you decided very quickly not to continue in that direction. I was disappointed, but I’m sure you had good reasons. But, my question is this, if you knew that many other priests had your back, could you and they have made a difference? Archbishop Cordileone is flapping in the pacific winds without any support from Rome or elsewhere for that matter. All good priests and bishops should have by now written letters (which were read in the parishes) of support to him. I’m still waiting on 500+ priests in the US to sign a letter stating their disdain for the Kasper & Pope Francis nonsense. The best (or at least one way) way to teach and explain the faith is by pointing out the good and bad priests and bishops.

    Msgr. Pope, again I’m sorry if I offend. You have the respect to be able to form such a pact. There are many out here that need to know who the good guys are, and that they are willing to stand and be counted. Thank you and may God continue to bless you.

  14. Very good commentary, Monsignor, thank you.

    There are few situations where the lack of admonishing the sinner is more prevalent than in the current debate over the divorced and remarried sans annulment. Catholics who have abandoned their first marriages (those in non-abusive situations) and take a second spouse in a civil or protestant marriage ceremony are seemingly denied the necessary admonition to return to their first spouses, or at the least if such is not possible (mainly for the children’s sake), to live as brother&sister. It doesn’t seem to matter about the open violation of the 6th and 9th commandments or of their first vows (which divorce does not excuse one of anyway). Yet, it seems that rather than the Church continuing to speak as one authoritative voice in this particular matter, there are those pushing for not admonishing the sinner as such (and denying them the chance of repentance and correction) but offer only a tacit acknowledgement of the “sin” and then work to confirm them in that sin in a non-confessional way, ignoring the correction that has been in place for centuries – the confessional.

    Your first quote above of Matt 18:15-18 is a good example: most often the innocent spouse privately tries correcting an abandoning spouse, then perhaps with a relative or two. But as for the Church being the third part of the correction equation – does it really happen as often as it should? Not in my experience, unfortunately.

    I hope and pray that come October this most necessary of the Spiritual Works of Mercy gains renewed fervor as it regards the Sacrament of Matrimony, resulting in the preservation of more first marriages. It may be too late for mine, but certainly not for others.

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