On the Balance of Kindness and Correction

As a follow-up from the recent blog post “Rediscovering a Lost Work of Mercy: Admonishing the Sinner,” it is important to reflect on balancing salutary discipline with necessary consolation and encouragement—never an easy task. For example, it is possible for parents to be so severe with their children that they become disheartened and lack necessary self-esteem; but it is also possible for parents to be so lax with them that the children become spoiled and lack proper self-discipline and humility. Scripture, seeking to balance teaching with encouragement, says, Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4).

Pastors, in their leadership of parishes, also need to find proper balance, offering kindness, consolation, encouragement, and witness to their congregations, while not failing to properly rebuke sin and warn of its consequences and of the coming judgment. St. Paul says,

You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory (1 Thess 2:11-13).

Like a loving Father must the priest exhort, as one who teaches and who wants and expects the best for his flock.

It is hard to argue that we have the balance right in the Church today. Correction and rebuke, according to what most Catholics report, are seldom mentioned in the pulpit. Such omission is not acting like a father; a father would see how sin threatens the future of his children and in love would correct them, being willing to upset his children to prevent something far worse. There are also priests who teach and preach as if trying to win an argument and prevail over others, rather than out of loving concern; they may be unduly harsh. Proper balance is necessary.

In families, the trend seems to be toward being overly permissive. Too many children today have become incorrigible because they did not learn discipline when they were young. Too many are bold toward their elders and have lost the humility necessary for learning and maturity. This speaks to families in which the balance between encouragement and discipline has been lost. It is also true that some children are oppressed by the other extreme and are weighed down with discouragement, poor self-image, and anger. Again, proper balance is necessary.

In his Book of Pastoral Rule, St. Gregory presents some good advice in regard to this balance. While much of what he says is common sense, it is important to review it; common sense doesn’t seem to be so common today. St. Gregory’s treatise offers memorable imagery for the thoughtful reader, whether priest or parent. Here is what he has to say about addressing the wound of sin:

But often a wound is made worse by unskilled mending … in every case, care should be provided in such a way that discipline is never rigid, nor kindness lax. … Either discipline or kindness is lacking if one is ever exercised independently of the other. … This is what the scriptures teach through the Samaritan who took the half-dead man to the inn and applied wine and oil to his wounds. The wine purged them and the oil soothed them.

Indeed, it is necessary that whoever directs the healing of wounds must administer with wine the bite of pain, and with oil the caress of kindness; so that what is rotten may be purged to by the wine, and what is curable may be soothed by the oil.

In short, gentleness is to be mixed with severity, a combination that will prevent the laity from becoming exasperated by excessive harshness, or relaxed by undue kindness. … Wherefore David said, “Your rod and your staff have comforted me” (Psalm 23:4). Indeed, by the rod we are punished and by the staff we are sustained. If, therefore, there is correction by the rod, let there also be support through the staff. Let there be love that does not soften, vigor that does not exasperate, zeal that is not immoderate or uncontrolled, and kindness that spares, but not more than is befitting. Therefore, justice and mercy are forged together in the art of spiritual direction. (Rule II.6)

These are practical reminders to be sure, but they also come with the memorable images of wine and oil, rod and staff. Both are necessary; each must balance the other. There must be clarity with charity and charity with clarity; there must be veritatem in caritate (truth in love).