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).

Considerations in Fraternal Correction

Fraternal correction is so important to the health of individuals, the family, the Church, and even nations, that some further reflection following Sunday’s Gospel is in order. The correction of a sinner is complex and difficult to accomplish well. Many avoid it entirely, especially due to these hypersensitive times, when some people base their very identity on their sins. Many take correction very personally, even labeling it “hate speech.” Those who dare to correct are often shamed for doing so and accused of “judging.”

Distinguishing between what God teaches to be good and what He teaches to be sin is a judgment that is required of us; our own judgment in the matter must conform to God’s revealed judgment. All moral exhortation in the Scripture aims to conform our understanding and judgment to God’s truth, revealed in Scripture and Natural Law. While we cannot judge a person’s ultimate state before God, we can and must judge; we must distinguish good from evil, virtue from sin.

Thus, difficult though it is, fraternal correction is required of us by God in a general way. However, this raises many questions: Is correction always required? Are we required to correct everyone? Does our obligation to correct vary and if so, how?

St. Thomas Aquinas sets forth some answers for us, both in terms of the basis of our obligation and its limits.

St. Thomas places the roots our obligation to correct one another in both charity and justice:

Now a man’s sin may be considered in two ways, first as being harmful to the sinner, secondly as conducing to the harm of others, by hurting or scandalizing them, or by being detrimental to the common good, the justice of which is disturbed by that man’s sin. … Now to do away with anyone’s evil is the same as to procure his good; and to procure a person’s good is an act of charity, whereby we wish and do our friend well. … Therefore, fraternal correction is an act of charity …. There is another correction which applies a remedy to the sin of the wrongdoer, considered as hurtful to others, and especially to the common good. This correction is an act of justice, whose concern it is to safeguard the rectitude of justice between one man and another (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art. 1, Respondeo).

So, fraternal correction is required of us as a precept or command. However, there are prudential aspects of when and how to correct. This is because the command to correct is not one that forbids us from doing something (in which case we should never do it), but rather one that requires something of us under various circumstances. Although the precept to correct describes what we are to do as a general practice, it cannot possibly address every particular set of circumstances. St. Thomas says,

Fraternal correction is a matter of precept. [W]hile the negative precepts of the Law forbid sinful acts, the positive precepts inculcate acts of virtue. … [N]egative precepts bind always and for all times. On the other hand, acts of virtue must [be done] by observing the due circumstances, which are requisite in order that an act be virtuous; namely, that it be done where, when, and how it ought to be done. … [F]raternal correction is directed to a brother’s amendment: so that it is a matter of precept, in so far as it is necessary for that end, but not so as we have to correct our erring brother at all places and times (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art. 2, Respondeo).

Thus, the particular circumstances will determine whom I must correct and how. As a general rule, parents are obligated to correct their children. Those in authority are more obligated to correct their subordinates. Elders are more obligated to correct those significantly younger. Family ties increase the obligation to correct; we are less obligated to correct strangers. Those with special training or standing such as teachers, pastors, bishops, and theologians are obligated to correct error and sin. However, their sphere of influence helps to focus their obligation. For example, a pastor’s greatest obligation is to instruct and correct his own parishioners; a bishop, his own flock; a teacher, his or her own students.

Generally, then, obligations to correct are lessened when the relationship is more distant or when one is in an inferior position.

However, just because an obligation is not as strong does not mean that there is never an obligation. For example, there are times when an inferior still ought to correct his superior. St. Thomas teaches this, but with an important distinction:

[C]orrection is twofold. One is an act of charity, which seeks in a special way the recovery of an erring brother by means of a simple warning: such like correction belongs to anyone who has charity, be he subject or prelate.

But there is another correction which is an act of justice purposing the common good, which is procured not only by warning one’s brother, but also, sometimes, by punishing him, that others may, through fear, desist from sin. Such a correction belongs only to prelates, whose business it is not only to admonish, but also to correct by means of punishments (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art. 3, Respondeo).

St. Thomas adds,

A subject is not competent to administer to his prelate the correction which is an act of justice through the coercive nature of punishment: but the fraternal correction which is an act of charity is within the competency of everyone in respect of any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there be something in that person which requires correction.

… it follows that when a subject corrects his prelate, he ought to do so in a becoming manner, not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect. Hence the Apostle says (1 Timothy 5:1): “An ancient man rebuke not, but entreat him as a father” (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art 4, Respondeo).

There is an additional consideration in administering fraternal correction publicly. As a general norm, the first approach should be to correct privately, but there are exceptions, which St. Thomas treats here:

With regard to the public denunciation of sins it is necessary to make a distinction: because sins may be either public or secret. On the case of public sins, a remedy is required not only for the sinner, that he may become better, but also for others, who know of his sin, lest they be scandalized. Wherefore such like sins should be denounced in public, according to the saying of the Apostle (1 Timothy 5:20): “Them that sin reprove before all, that the rest also may have fear,” which is to be understood as referring to public sins, as Augustine states (De Verb. Dom. xvi, 7).

On the other hand, in the case of secret sins, the words of Our Lord seem to apply (Matthew 18:15): “If thy brother shall offend against thee tell him his sin, but between you and him alone,” etc. …[So] there are … sins which injure none but the sinner, and the person sinned against, either because he alone is hurt by the sinner, or at least because he alone knows about his sin, and then our one purpose should be to help our sinning brother [privately] … Secondly, we ought to safeguard our sinning brother’s good name, both because the dishonor of one leads to the dishonor of others … and also because when one man’s sin is made public others are incited to sin likewise (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art. 7, Respondeo).

When the secret admonition has been given once or several times, as long as there is probable hope of his amendment, we must continue to admonish him in private, but as soon as we are able to judge with any probability that the secret admonition is of no avail, we must take further steps … (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art. 8, Reply to obj. 1).

Both St. Thomas’ and our Lord’s words thus indicate that private admonition does not always work. At such times (if the matter is serious), others can and should be brought in. (The even rarer remedy of excommunication should be applied only after repeated entreaties.) St. Thomas says,

Since, however, one’s conscience should be preferred to a good name, Our Lord wished that we should publicly denounce our brother and so deliver his conscience from sin, even though he should forfeit his good name. Therefore, it is evident that the precept requires a secret admonition to precede public denunciation (Summa Theologica, II, IIae, q. 33, art 7, Respondeo).

St. Thomas also addresses the case in which Church prelates must be corrected by those subject to them in some way. Clearly the matter must be serious and other more discreet methods should first be exhausted. St. Thomas teaches as follows regarding the public correction of Church prelates:

To withstand anyone in public exceeds the mode of fraternal correction, and so Paul would not have withstood Peter then, unless he were in some way his equal as regards the defense of the faith. But one who is not an equal can reprove privately and respectfully. Hence the Apostle in writing to the Colossians (4:17) tells them to admonish their prelate: “Say to Archippus: Fulfil thy ministry [Vulgate: ‘Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it.’ Cf. 2 Timothy 4:5.” It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2:11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects” (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 33, art. 4, Reply to obj. 2).

Note that although St. Thomas gives a general opinion in this regard based on solid principles, Canon Law and other standing practices should be considered if a specific instance arises in which a prelate needs to be reproved by his subjects. Angry denunciations and mere insubordination are out of place. As St. Paul says, An ancient man rebuke not, but entreat him as a father (1 Tim 5:1).

Conclusion: Fraternal correction is central to healthy families, a healthy church, and a healthy culture. In recent times we have done very poorly with this on every level. Our lack of charitable and clear correction goes a long way in explaining the moral confusion and darkness of our time. All of us, clergy and laity alike, need to recover a healthy respect for this act of charity toward the sinner and justice toward the wider community. In addition, all of us need to be more open to correction ourselves. Let us pray for courage, zeal, and charity in this regard.

On the Balance of Kindness and Correction

As a follow-up from Sunday’s Gospel (on correcting 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).

The Obligation of Clear, Compassionate Correction of the Sinner – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

We live in times in which there is a widespread notion that to correct sinners is to “judge” them. Never mind that it is sin that we judge, not the sinner. Never mind that in accusing us of judging, the worldly-minded are themselves doing the very judging they condemn. Never mind any of that; the point of the charge is to try to shame us into silence. Despite the fact that Scripture consistently directs us to correct the sinner, many Catholics have bought into the notion that correcting the sinner is “judging” him. In this, the devil, who orchestrates the “correcting is judging” campaign, rejoices; for if he can keep us from correcting one another, sin can and does flourish.

Today’s Gospel is an important reminder and explanation of our obligation, as well instruction on how we should correct the sinner and be open to correction ourselves. Let’s look at it in four steps.

I. PRESCRIPTIONJesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him.” I placed “against you” in parentheses because although some ancient manuscripts contain this phrase, many do not. While some interpret this Gospel to command correction only when someone sins “against you,” none of the other texts we will review today contain this restriction. For the purpose of this reflection, I will favor those manuscripts that do not include the phrase “against you.”

Notice the brief but clear advice that when we see someone in sin, we ought to talk with him or her about it. Many, probably due to sloth, prefer to say that it’s none of their business what others do. Jesus clearly teaches otherwise.

In this teaching, Jesus is obviously speaking to the general situation; some distinctions are helpful and admissible in specific instances. For example, one generally has a greater obligation to correct people in grave matters than in less serious ones. One is more compelled to correct those who are younger than those who are older. One is more obligated to correct subordinates, less so, superiors. Parents are strongly duty-bound to correct their children, but children are seldom obligated to correct their parents. The general rule, however, remains: all other things being equal, there is an obligation to engage in Christian correction. Jesus says, “If your brother sins, go and tell him.”

There are many other Scriptures that also advise and even obligate us to correct the sinner. Some of the texts also speak to the way in which we should correct.

  • My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins (James 5:19).
  • 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).
  • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. (Col 3:16)
  • And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14).
  • Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17).
  • Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand (Ez 3:17).

Hence, in charity, we have an obligation to correct someone who has gone over into sin. In correcting we ought to be gentle but clear. Further, we ought to correct with humility and not fall into the temptation of acting as if we are “superior.” Our goal is to limit sin’s effects and to apply necessary medicine to the problem of sin.

We will see more “correction texts” in a moment, but for now, let the first point be repeated: if your brother sins, talk with him about it.

II. PURPOSEIf he listens to you, you have won over your brother. Here, let us just briefly note that the point of this correction is to win a brother or sister back to the Lord; it is not to win an argument or to show superiority. The point is to contend with Satan, by God’s grace, and to win the person, who is in Satan’s grasp, back for God.

III. PROCESS – The Lord next sets forth a process for fraternal correction. It would seem that the process here is generally for more serious matters and that all these steps might not be necessary for lesser ones. For addressing the general situation in which a brother or sister is in a state of serious and unrepentant sin, the following process is set forth:

1.  Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. This first step is often omitted in our fallen, gossip-prone, human condition. If a person is in sin, too frequently we will talk to everyone except the actual sinner about it. This is usually not helpful and in fact merely compounds the sin: the sinner goes uncorrected and sin multiplies through gossip. Satan gets a high return on his investment, often netting many sinners for the price of one.

Jesus is clear: speak to the sinner himself, first. There may be situations in which we need to seek advice from someone we trust about how best to approach the sinner, and sometimes we may need to check a few facts first, but such lateral discussions ought to be few and only with trusted individuals. The Lord is clear: step one is to go first to the sinner himself.

2.  If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” This sort of option may seem difficult today in our cosmopolitan settings, but such things can occur in the right circumstances. Often these sorts of team efforts are called “interventions” and they are frequently done in the cases of addicts who resist treatment. Sometimes, too, it is used when a certain family member is engaging in hurtful practices such as demonstrating severe anger, refusing to forgive, or causing division within the family. Such interventions are usually conducted by several family members whom the person trusts and they often receive training of some sort before doing so. Depending on the gravity of the matter, these interventions are both necessary and counseled by the Lord as part of a method to end destructive and sinful behaviors.

3.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. This presupposes that the Church is experienced in a personal way and that the individual is connected to a body of believers who matter to him in some way. The presumption is that these are people he knows (e.g., pastors, parish leaders). This is not always the case in modern parishes, which can be large and impersonal and where many can attend yet stay on the fringes. Rather than simply dismissing this step as unrealistic, we ought to see it as setting forth an ideal of what parishes ought to be.

For those who have some relationship to the Church, this step needs to be considered in cases of grave sin. As a pastor, I have sometimes been asked to speak to someone’s family member who is in serious sin. Presuming other measures have been taken, I often do speak to him or her to warn about such things as fornication, cohabitation, abortion, drug use, anger issues, and disrespect for parents.

To be honest, though, unless the individual has more than a superficial membership in the parish, such talks are of limited effectiveness. Further, the word “Church” here should not be seen merely as meaning clergy. Sometimes there are others in the Church who ought to be engaged, such as leaders of organizations to which the person belongs, older parishioners (to speak to younger ones), and so forth. I have often engaged a team to speak, especially to younger people.

4.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Here we come to a matter of some controversy: excommunication. Treating someone as tax collector or Gentile is a Jewish way of saying, “Have nothing more to do with such a one; let him be expelled from the community.”

Some today object to the use of excommunication and often suggest, with some superiority, that “Jesus would never do such a thing.” Yet Jesus Himself is teaching us here to do this very thing. Excommunication is not a punishment to be inflicted upon someone simply to be rid of him or her, but rather as a medicine to bring forth repentance. In addition, excommunication comes only at the end of a long process; it is not something that that Church rushes to do. But it is taught here as well as elsewhere in Scripture. Consider some of the following examples:

  • 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 (2 Thess 3:6).
  • If anyone 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).
  • 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 (1 Cor 5:1).
  • Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame (1 Cor 15:33).
  • But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone 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. Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? (1 Cor 5:11)

So there is a fairly strong, clear biblical mandate from both Jesus and St. Paul that excommunication may at times have to be used. It would seem from the texts we have surveyed that the purpose of excommunication is two-fold: to protect the community from the influence of serious sinners and to be a medicine to urge the wayward Christian unto saving repentance.

If any would doubt the seriousness of excommunication or think nothing of the Church’s solemn declaration of it, note that Jesus indicates that He will recognize the Church’s authoritative declaration: Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Thus, let no one make light of the Church’s solemn declaration in such matters.

Today there is increasing demand for bishops to use this measure more often, especially for those who openly support and help fund abortion. It seems clear from the Scriptures we have surveyed that such a measure can, and at times should, be used at the end of a process such as Jesus describes. If one is directly involved in abortion—either by having one, performing one, paying for one directly, or directly assisting a woman to have one—he or she is automatically (self) excommunicated.

What of “Catholic” politicians and jurists who advance the availability of abortion and vote funding for it? Most (but not all) bishops have made a prudential decision not to make use of this measure for “Catholic” politicians who support abortion (or same-sex “marriage,” for that matter). Most of them say that they are concerned that it would be perceived as a political act rather than a moral shepherding of these wayward souls, and because the action would likely be misinterpreted and falsely portrayed by the media, they consider it unwise to excommunicate.

Bare minimum – It is not my role as a priest to critique bishops on whether or not they choose to excommunicate; bishops must make prudential judgments. At a bare minimum, I would hope that every Catholic (politician or not) who even comes close to procuring an abortion or advancing its availability to others has been privately instructed and warned by his pastor (or bishop in the case of prominent individuals) that if he does not change, and dies unrepentant, he will almost certainly go to Hell. Likewise, those of any prominence who help to advance other serious moral evils should be strongly admonished by pastors/bishops to return to the truth.

It is simply too serious a situation to leave a sinner of this magnitude uninstructed, unrebuked, or in any way unclear as to the gravity of the matter. The sinner should be instructed—yes, warned vividly—to repent at once and to refrain from Holy Communion until confession can be celebrated following true repentance.

IV. POWERAgain, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.

The Lord is showing here how our unity will bring strength. How can we have unity in the Church if there isn’t agreement on basic moral principles and behavior? Thus fraternal correction not only helps the sinner, it helps the Church by helping to preserve our unity in the truth of the Gospel. Central to the truth that unites us is the moral law of Christ and His Church. Fraternal correction increases our unity and makes us and our prayer stronger.

Sadly, today it is evident that our unity and the power of our prayer as a Church is greatly diminished by the disunity among us and the way in which many continue for too long without being corrected by the Church. We are not a force for change because we are divided on the very truth that is supposed to unite us. Much of our division is further rooted in our failure to teach with clarity and correct the sinner.

Much work and prayer are necessary today to unlock the power of which the Lord speaks in today’s Gospel.

Who Am I Not to Judge? Correcting the Sinner Is an Essential Work of Charity

fraternal correctionIn the Gospel for Monday of the 12th Week in Ordinary Time, there is a Scripture passage that is almost too well known. I say this because the world has wielded it like a club to swing at Christians. The text is quoted almost as if it represented the entirety of the Bible’s teaching; it is often used to shut down discussions of what is right vs. wrong, what is virtuous vs. sinful. Even many Christians misinterpret the passage as a mandate to be silent in the face of sin and evil. I say that it is too well known because it is remembered while everything else in the Scriptures that balances or clarifies it is forgotten. Here is the passage:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matt 7:1-5).

Anytime the Church or an individual Christian labels a particular behavior as wrong or sinful, wagging fingers are raised. This is followed, in an indignant tone, with something like this: “You’re being judgmental! The Bible says, ‘Judge not.’ Who are you to judge your neighbor?” This is clearly an attempt to shut down discussion and to shame Christians, or the Church, into silence.

To a large degree this tactic has worked. Modern culture has succeeded in shaming many Christians from this essential work: correcting the sinner. Too many are terrified when they are said to be “judging” someone by calling attention to sin or wrongdoing. In a culture in which tolerance (a mistaken notion of tolerance at that) is one of the only virtues left, “judging” is deemed one of the worst offenses.

Pay careful attention to what this Gospel text is actually saying. The judgment spoken of does not refer to discerning between right and wrong. Rather, it refers to determining punishment or condemnation. The next sentence makes this clear when it speaks of the measure we use, the level of condemnation, harshness, or punishment. A parallel passage in Luke’s Gospel makes this clear:

Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. … For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:36-38).

The judgment here refers to unnecessarily harsh and punitive condemnation. To paraphrase the opening verses colloquially, “Be careful not to condemn, because if you lower the boom on others, you will have the boom lowered on you. If you throw the book at others, it will be thrown at you.”

Further, the parable that follows in the passage above from the Gospel of Matthew does not say that we should refrain from correcting sinners. Rather, it says that we should get right with God and understand our own sin in order that we will see clearly enough to be able to correct our brother. Far from forbidding the correction of the sinner, the passage actually emphasizes the importance of correction by underscoring the importance of doing it well and with humility and integrity.

One of the most forgotten obligations we have is that of correcting the sinner. It is listed among the Spiritual Works of Mercy. St. Thomas Aquinas lists it in the Summa Theologica as a work of Charity:

[F]raternal correction properly so called, is directed to the amendment of the sinner. Now to do away with anyone’s evil is the same as to procure his good: and to procure a person’s good is an act of charity, whereby we wish and do our friend well (Summa Thelogica II, IIae, 33.1).

Go be sure, there are some judgments that are forbidden us.

  1. We cannot assess that we are better or worse than someone else before God.
  2. We cannot always understand the ultimate culpability or inner intentions of another person as though we were God. Scripture says regarding judgments such as these, Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart (1 Sam 16:7).
  3. We cannot make the judgment of condemnation. That is to say, we do not have the power or knowledge to condemn someone to Hell. God alone is judge in this sense.
  4. We must not be unnecessarily harsh or punitive. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven … For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:36-38).

Scripture both commends and commands fraternal correction: I remarked above that the Gospel from today’s Mass is too well known because it has been embraced to the exclusion of everything else in the Bible on the subject of correcting sinners. Over and over again Scripture tells us to correct the sinner. Far from forbidding fraternal correction, the Scriptures command and commend it. I would like to share some of those texts here and add a little commentary of my own in red text.

  1. 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 and summon him to repentance. If private rebuke does not work (assuming the matter is serious), others who are trustworthy should be summoned to the task. As a final resort, the Church should be informed. If he will not listen even to the Church, then he should be excommunicated (treated as a tax collector or Gentile). In serious matters, excommunication should be considered as a kind of medicine that will inform the sinner of just how serious the situation is. Sadly, this “medicine” is seldom used today, even though Jesus clearly prescribes it (at least in serious matters).
  2. 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 anyone 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 you (1 Cor 5:1-13). The Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, commands that we “judge” the evildoer. In this case the matter is very serious (incest). Notice how the text says that 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 in the world and it is harmful for us to associate with them. We are instructed not to keep company with people who can mislead us or tempt us to sin. This requires a judgment on our part. Some judgements are actually required of us.
  3. 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). We are called to notice when a person has been overtaken in sin and to correct him. The text cautions us to do so in a spirit of gentleness, otherwise we risk sinning in the very process of correcting the sinner. We can be prideful or unnecessarily harsh in our words of correction; this is no way to correct. The instruction here is to be gentle and humble, yet clear. It also seems that patience is called for, because we must share in the burdens of one another’s sin. 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 of helping them to repent.
  4. 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, because it seems that both the corrected and the corrector are beneficiaries of well-executed fraternal correction.
  5. 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). This text teaches us that refusing 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.
  6. If anyone 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). The medicine of rebuke, even to the point of refusing fellowship, is commanded here. Note, too, that even a sinner does not lose his dignity; he is still to be regarded as a brother, not as an enemy. A similar text 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 (2 Thess 3:6).
  7. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom (Col 3:16). To admonish means to warn. If the word of Christ is rich within us, we will warn when necessary. A similar text 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 work (2 Tim 3:16). Reproof and correction are thus part of what is necessary to equip us for every good work.
  8. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14). Fraternal correction is described here as admonishing, encouraging, and helping. We are also exhorted to patience in these works.

There are more of these passages, but I’m sure you get the point by now. Fraternal correction, correcting the sinner, is prescribed and consistently commanded by Scripture. We must resist the shame that the world tries to inflict on us for “judging” people. Not all judgment is forbidden; in fact, some judgment is commanded. Correction of the sinner is both charitable and virtuous.

We have failed to correct – If we are to have any shame about fraternal correction, it should be that we have failed to correct when necessary. Because of our failure in this regard the world is a much more sinful, coarse, and undisciplined place. Too many people today are out of control, undisciplined, and incorrigible. Too many are locked in sin and have never been properly corrected. The world is less pleasant and charitable, less teachable. It is also more sinful and in greater bondage. To fail to correct is to fail in charity and mercy; it is to fail to be virtuous and to fail in calling others to virtue. We are all impoverished by our failure to correct the sinner. He who winks at a fault causes trouble; but he who frankly reproves promotes peace. … A path to life is his who heeds admonition; but he who disregards reproof goes go astray (Proverbs 10:10, 17).

The following video basically captures the problem that Christians face and explains fairly well some of the distinctions I make here:

Enduring Correction Gladly. A Meditation by a Saint of the Church on the "Difficult Gift"

One of the harder things to accept in life is when others correct us. Usually when confronted by a shortcoming of ours we are fearful, and our egos, which tend to be fragile, react with anger and resentment. But Scripture reminds us in many places that to be corrected is in fact a gift:

  1. When the Just man corrects me it is kindness. Let him rebuke me–it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it. (Psalm 141:5)
  2. It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools. (Eccl 7:5)
  3. He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored. (Prov 13:18)
  4. He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. He who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever heeds correction gains understanding.. (Prov 15:31-32)
  5. To one who listens, valid criticism is like a gold earring or other gold jewelry. (Prov 25:12)

So correction, even if not perfectly given, is a gift. But it is a hard gift, in which our flesh struggles to rejoice. We are easily hurt and offended, or perhaps we are angry, because we see the person who corrects us as far from perfect himself and wonder why we are being singled out. So correction is hard for our flesh (our sin nature) to endure.

In the modern age there seem to be additional cultural obstacles to accepting correction.

  1. It is widely held that this current age has attained a kind of enlightenment that previous ages lacked. We are very mesmerized by our technology and science and maintain an illusion of greatness. Hence the teachings and traditions of the elders are often rejected as relics from a time more rude, bigoted, and ignorant.
  2. We also live in a culture that celebrates youth and often isolates its elders.
  3. Respect of elders is not as taught or insisted upon as in previous times.
  4. In an age dominated by the notion that truth is relative, everything is thus reduced to the level of opinion, and my opinion is just as good as yours.

This past week in the breviary we have been  reading from the Abbot, St Dorotheus of Gaza and, specifically  his work De accusatione sui ipsius (Concerning the accusation of one’s very self). He has some important insights I would like to share and reflect on. Allow me to quote, and then comment. His text is in bold, black italics, my comments are in normal text red.

The man who finds fault with himself accepts all things cheerfully – misfortune, loss, disgrace, dishonor and any other kind of adversity. He believes that he is deserving of all these things and nothing can disturb him. No one could be more at peace than this man….. [Again] the reason for all disturbance, if we look to its roots, is that no one finds fault with himself. This is the source of all annoyance and distress [in the matter of correction]. . This is why we sometimes have no rest.” 

In our psychotherapeutic culture we tend to consider most notions of our own guilt as an unhealthy, morbid guilt. Thus, one might conclude that Abbot Dorotheus was giving unsound advice. Now there is such a thing as morbid guilt, but this is not what our author commends. Rather he is commending a healthy and sober notion that we are all sinners and that we offend in many ways, both hidden and open.

Scripture says, In many ways all of us give offense (James 3:2) and the righteous falls seven times and daily rises again (Prov  24:16) and yet again, There is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins (Eccles 7:20). The good Abbot is commending a sober realization of this fact and indicating it is a source of peace for us.

Hence we are not exempt from the need for correction and, if we have a lively understanding of this fact, nothing can disturb us. The just man or woman will assess his life properly and conclude, “I am more blessed than I deserve. I have offended in many ways, but God who is merciful has spared me the full impact of my sinful choices. Hence, when I am corrected, I realize that I more than need and deserve correction. Even when I am not corrected perfectly, or may feel singled out, it remains true that I have often escaped rebuke when I DID deserve it.”

This sort of thinking and premise helps steel the soul against the resentfulness that sometimes comes when we are rebuked. There is a kind of serenity that comes when we say, “My marriage is not perfect because I am in it….The Church is not sinless, because I am a member, this situation is messy because I am involved. There is an inner peace and we are far less disturbed by life’s imperfections when we own our own stuff and stay in our lane. Correction is much more easily received by a serene person aware that they are in need of assistance and correction.

But perhaps you will offer me this objection: “Suppose my brother injures me, and on examining myself I find that I have not given him any cause. Why should I blame myself?” Certainly if someone examines himself carefully and with fear of God, he will never find himself completely innocent. He will see that he has given some provocation by an action, a word or by his manner. If he does find that he is not guilty in any of these ways, certainly he must have injured that brother somehow at some other time. Or perhaps he has been a source of annoyance to some other brother. For this reason he deserves to endure the injury because of many other sins that he has committed on other occasions.

Our flesh, our sin nature, is so quick to want to declare ourselves innocent. Too often we carelessly go through life unaware of the grief and harm we cause, unaware of how difficult we can be to live with.

Scripture says, Who of us can discern his own errors? Forgive my hidden faults, O Lord (Psalm 19:12), and again, You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence (Psalm 90:8).

We think our side of the story is the only side. Well, a one sided pancake is pretty thin.  And even if is true that I do not deserve blame in this exact instance, I am still serene by the knowledge that I never got half the stripes and criticism I really deserved. More often than not I escaped rebuke, punishment and correction. It’s OK to let the scale tip back a bit.

The attitude of what I “deserve” that robs us of a lot or serenity and makes us difficult to correct. Expectations of what I “deserve” are premeditated resentments and cause all sorts of protests to issue from me that make me incorrigible (incapable of correction).  The truth is, if God were “fair” and we all really got what we “deserve” we’d all be in Hell right now. We ought to be very careful of announcing what we deserve for we have quite a debt in this department.

We must not be surprised when we are rebuked by holy men. We have no other path to peace but this. ….If a person is engaged in prayer or contemplation, he can easily take a rebuke from his brother and be unmoved by it. On other occasions affection toward a brother is a strong reason; love bears all things with the utmost patience. Here then are two other helps to being able to accept correction and rebuke cheerfully.

When one prays, he is anchored and not easily disturbed by contrary seas. When one prays she begins to discover he dignity is from God and not merely what others think. The soul who prays is delivered, in stages, from serving two masters and from the obsession with popularity and seeming to be perfect in the eyes of others. Hence rebuke and correction are no longer devastating. One seeks only to please God and the correction and reality checks others can offer are seen as helps on the journey to God. Others can help me to see myself as I really am. And whatever rebuke or correction is offered, it can be taken back to prayer and discerned in terms of its accuracy and application. For, not every correction we receive is always of God. Through prayer and spiritual direction the soul is not vexed by correction, it is glad for the revelation and eager to discern it with God. 

Note too how St. Dorotheus indicates that love can help us bear the difficulty of being corrected. When we love others we are more able to hear even difficult things from them. Mutual love, respect, and trust are a good environment for fraternal correction to find its mark.

Just some advice from an old saint, St. Dorotheus, an Abbot who lived a monastery in the Gaza desert in the 7th Century. More his teachings are here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorotheus_of_Gaza

 Here’s a charming and clever Ad from this year’s Super Bowl. It shows two border guards barely enduring each other’s existence. But for a moment the ice breaks through a shared interest and we think perhaps the scorn will give way to mutual respect and mutual correction of one another’s perceptions. Something to hope for anyway:

The Pope Reflects on Mystery of Iniquity and the Need for the Church to be Sober About It.

I just finished reading Pope Benedict’s Book: Light of the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald. There are so many excellent points in the book it is hard to know where to begin. I thought, perhaps over the next few weeks to occasionally present a clip from the book and make it the basis of a reflection and conversation. In my Kindle I marked a number of texts for this purpose.

There is a very helpful discussion in the book on the mystery of iniquity and the Church’s need to be sober about this fact even with, and especially in her own ranks. The matter surfaced in the discussion between Mr Seewald and the Pope about the clergy sex abuse crisis that has swept the Church, first in America, and then in Europe. Peter Seewald asks the following question:

The causes of abuse are complex. Aghast, one wonders most of all how someone who reads the Gospel every day and celebrates Holy Mass, who is constantly exposed to the sacraments and is actually supposed to be strengthened by them, can go astray in this horrible way.

And the Pope Answers:

That is a question that really touches on the mysterium  iniquitatis, the mystery of evil. One wonders also in this regard: What does someone like that think in the morning when he goes to the altar and offers the Holy Sacrifice? Does he actually go to confession? What does he say in confession? What consequences does that confession have for him? It really ought to be the major factor in extricating him from it and compelling him to amend his life. It is a mystery that someone who has pledged himself to what is holy can lose it so completely and then, indeed, can lose his origins. At his priestly ordination he must have had at least a longing for what is great and pure; otherwise he would not have made that choice. How can someone then fall so far? We do not know. But this means all the more that priests must support one another and must not lose sight of one another. That bishops are responsible for this and that we must beg the lay faithful also to help support their priests. And I see in the parishes that love for the priest grows when they recognize his weaknesses and take it upon themselves to help him in those weaknesses (Light of the World, Loc. 582-92)

While the context of their discussion was on priestly sins, one may also apply this to many circumstances. For example, how can a man who married his wife and once loved her intensely, fall so far as to be in intimacies with another woman?  What does he think as he returns home and his children run to greet him? How has he gotten to this point? How can he do this to his family? Or perhaps one can imagine that even murderous felons were once innocent children who played simple games and wept grievously if they but fell from their bike. What happened to them that they have become calloused and hardened to the point that, taking the life of another, or brutally harming them, causes them little compunction.

There is indeed a downward path or trajectory of evil,  though its intensity in some remains mysterious. But the fact is, little sins and insensitivities   lay the foundation for greater ones. As one gives way to repeated sin and fails to repent, that sin becomes custom or habit. But having descended one rung on the ladder, the next rung now seems not so far, nor the one below that. And as one descends further into the darkness the eyes adjust to an increasing dimness, such that the light above now seems quite obnoxious. And behaviors once thought shameful, even impossible to one, now seem within reach and somehow plausible. As the memory of the light fades, the once unthinkable now becomes a daily fare. The descent on the moral ladder continues, one rung at a time, and the light gradually disappears.

St Augustine put it this way: Because of a perverse will was lust made; and lust indulged in became custom; and custom not resisted became necessity (Confessions 8.5). Evil does grow, hearts do harden, intellects do grow dark, very dark. 12-Step meetings often reference the “stinking thinking” that reinforces addiction, bizarre behavior,  and makes every form of lust one’s “God-given right.”  The only way to break this cycle is honest,  frequent confession and authentic accountability to others.

Accountability – Hence the Pope rightly observes that priests must support one another and bishops must be responsible to shepherd their priests and hold them responsible and accountable for the health of their spiritual and moral life. Lay people too must not only pray for their priests but also be of active assistance. This assistance can take the form of simple encouragement, but it may also have to take the form of alerting those to whom a priest is accountable, if the matter is serious.

But here too this is not a matter only for priests. Everyone benefits from frequent, honest confession and accountability to others. I am aware of an increasing number of individuals who struggle with Internet pornography and have made the decision to be accountable to certain close and trustworthy friends. These friends closely monitor the Internet habits of the one struggling by receiving access to the computer cache, and other data made available to them via an ISPN. Accountability, along with Sacramental confession are essential components of the moral life. Otherwise, the mystery of iniquity too easily grows and overwhelms

Salutary Punishment – In the life of the Church there is also need not only for accountability but also salutary penalties which exist, not only for the good of the offender, but also to protect the common good. Here is what the Pope has to say in Light of the World:

The Archbishop of Dublin told me…..that [in Ireland] ecclesiastical penal law functioned until the late 1950s; admittedly it was not perfect—there is much to criticize about it—but nevertheless it was applied. After the mid-sixties, however, it was simply not applied any more. The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people. Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of love, which in fact is not just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love.  (Light of the World, Loc  468-76)

This, of course, is a consistent problem in the Church today, also in many families, and to a certain extent is the wider society. Fraternal correction has fallen on hard times and the results are disastrous. Grievous sins often go unremarked, let alone punished. Pulpits are too often silent, pastors, teachers, educators and parents are slow to teach and correct. In many western countries the criminal justice system is quite often askew and many serious criminals are only lightly punished, and too easily walk in wider society where they can, and do harm, again, and again.

I have written here before on the biblical teaching on Fraternal Correction (http://blog.adw.org/2009/11/fraternal-correction-the-forgotten-virtue/). There is no need to repeat it all here except to emphasize as the Pope already indicates, that Fraternal Correction is ordered to love, it is a work of charity and is also listed among the spiritual works of mercy.

Note however that Pope Benedict is speaking of more than correction, he also includes salutary punishment. For correction without any punishment ever, even on the horizon, is usually ineffective. Human nature, (at least the fallen version of it), usually requires more than merely verbal warnings and rebukes. There is a place in the Christian community for punitive measures. We do not punish for its own sake but rather as a medicine for the sinner and protection of the common good.

Both Jesus and Paul go so far as to prescribe excommunication for more serious matters, if the sinner is unrepentant (cf: Matt 18:15ff, 1 Cor 5:1ff). Sadly the Church has, at least collectively speaking, been loath to use many canonical penalties, let alone excommunication. The result is that error and misbehavior often go on openly, and for decades. The result is an uncorrected sinner who then harms the faithful by bad teaching and/or example. The Pope’s words here are powerful and one would hope they indicate a change of thinking at wider levels in the Church too. Mercy has its place but love must also insist on truth, respect the common good, and the true good of the sinner.

A fabulous book and conversation with the Pope overall and must reading as soon as possible.

What St. Paul Can Teach Us About Respect for Church Authority

In the readings for daily Mass the past few days we have been reviewing the faith journey of St. Paul who describes his personal history and also his authority in the second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. The story is interesting for three reasons.

  1. It can help correct notions that some have of Paul’s rapid assent to the office of apostle (Bishop) and affirm that he was not a lone-ranger apostle. He was a man who was formed in the community of the Church for some length of time, and did not go on Mission until he was sent.
  2. It spells out Paul’s relationship to authority within the Church.
  3. It shows forth an important aspect of being under authority and the prevailing need for fraternal correction in hierarchal structures.

Let’s take a look at each of these matters in turn.

1. On Paul’s conversion, formation and ascent to the office of Apostle (Bishop). Many have oversimplified notions of Paul’s conversion, and subsequent missionary activity. Many who have not carefully studied the texts of Acts, Galatians, and other references assume that Paul went right to work after his conversion as a missionary. But this was not the case.

At the time near his conversion Paul was described as “a young man” (neanias). Sometime after the death of Stephen he had his conversion, encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.  Immediately following his encounter with Christ he was blinded for three days and eventually healed by a Christian named Ananias who also baptized him (Acts 9:9-19). Hereafter, according to Galatians, Paul went into the Desert of Arabia (Gal 1:17). Why he went, and for how long is not known. It is probably not wrong to presume that he went there to reflect and possibly be further formed in the Christian faith to which he had come so suddenly and unexpectedly. Was he there for several years as some scholars propose or just a brief time as others do? It is not possible to say with certainty but it would seem that some amount of time would be necessary to pray, reflect and experience formation in the Christian way, possibly with other Christians. A period of at least a year seems tenable and perhaps as many as three years. We can only speculate.

Paul then returned to Damascus and joined the Christian community there for a period of almost three years (Gal 1:18). While there he took to debating in the synagogues and was so effective in demonstrating that Jesus was the hoped for messiah that some of the Jews there conspired to kill him. He fled the city and went to Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-25). Paul states that he went there to confer with Cephas (Peter) (Gal 1:18). Paul seems to imply that he thought it was time to confer with Peter since he had begun to teach and even now was gaining disciples. Later he would describe the purpose of another visit to Peter and the other leaders: to present the Gospel that I preach to the Gentiles…so that I might not be running, or have run in vain (Gal 2:2).  While there on this first visit he stayed for 15 days and  also met James.

After this consultation he went home to Tarsus for a period of about three years. What he did during this time is unknown. Barnabas then arrived and asked him to come to Antioch and help him evangelize there (Acts 11:25-26). He stayed there about a year. He made another brief visit to Jerusalem to deliver a collection for the poor and upon his return to Antioch we finally see his ordination as a Bishop. The leaders of the Church at Antioch were praying and received instruction from the Holy Spirit to Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them (Acts 13:3). Thus, the leaders of the Church there laid  hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth on Mission. Here we have an ordination and the source of Paul’s status as Apostle (bishop).

Notice however, this sending happens years after Paul’s conversion. Depending on how long we account his time in the desert we are talking about 7-10 years wherein Paul lived in community with other members of the Church and also conferred with Peter. He was not a self appointed missionary and his conversion required completion before the Church sent him forth. This going-forth he undertook only after being sent.

2. On Paul’s submission to authority – We can see therefore, that Paul was not a lone ranger. He did submit what he taught to Peter and later to others apostles and leaders (Acts 11 & 15). He states that to have preached something other than what the Church proposed would be to run “in vain” (Gal 2:2). Here was a man who was formed by the community of the Church and who submitted his teachings to scrutiny by lawful authority. Here was man who went forth on his missions only after  he was ordained and sent. Further, Paul and Barnabas, as they went through the towns and villages on their missionary journeys, also established authority in each church community they founded by appointing presbyters in each town (Acts 14:23). Upon completion of their first missionary journey they reported back to the leaders at Antioch who had sent them (Acts 14:27) and later to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Hence we have an accountability structure in the early Church and a line of authority. Paul was no. He both respected authority and established authority in the churches he established. He also makes it clear to the Galatians and others that he has authority and that he expects them to respect it.

3. But here is where we also see a fascinating and somewhat refreshing portrait of what true respect for authority includes. It is clear, from what we have seen, that Paul respected the authority of Peter and had both conferred with him early on and later set forth the gospel that he preached. However, there is also a description of Paul offering fraternal correction to Peter:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Gal 2:11-14)

There is something refreshing about this understanding of authority. It understands that having authority does not mean one is above reproof. Too many people shy away from speaking honestly to those in authority. There is an old saying about bishops: When a man becomes a bishop he will never again have a bad meal and he will never again hear the truth.  Too many of us flatter those who have authority. In so doing we tend to isolate them. They do not have all the information and feedback they need to make good decisions. And then we they do make questionable decisions we criticize them. Of course we seldom do this to their face. Rather we speak ill of them behind their back and continue to remain largely silent and flattering to their face. The cycle continues, and everyone suffers.

But here Paul stands face to face (κατὰ πρόσωπον αὐτῷ ἀντέστην) with Peter and accuses him of a moral fault. Peter had taught rightly of the equality of the Gentiles but drew back from keeping company with them. We as Catholics teach of the infallibility of the pope but we do not teach that he is impeccable (sinless). Even those who teach rightly (as Peter did) sometimes struggle to fully live the truth they preach (believe me, I know).

Accountability in the Church demands that we learn to speak the truth to one another in love, even if the one we must speak to has authority. People are often reticent to speak frankly to their Pastors. Bishops too are often isolated in this way. Even their priests often refrain from frank discussion of issues. In this Archdiocese I know that Archbishop Wuerl is very serious about consultation and he enjoys a vigorous airing of issues at the priest council, and other consultative bodies.

Clearly correction and/or frank discussion should be done charitably, but it should be done. Now Paul here is a little bolder than I would be but he also lived in a different culture than I. As we can see from the Gospels and other writings Jesus and the Apostles really “mixed it up” with others. The ancient Jewish setting was famous for frank and vivid discussion of issues that included a lot of hyperbole. Our own culture prefers a more gentle approach. Perhaps the modern rule is best stated: Clarity with Charity.

In the end, we show a far greater respect for authority by speaking clearly and directly to those in authority. False flattery is unhelpful, inappropriate silence does not serve, and speaking scornfully behind the backs of others is just plain sinful.

So Paul demonstrates a sort of refreshing honesty with Peter here. He acknowledges Peter’s authority as we have seen but also respects Peter enough as a man to speak with him directly and clearly, to his face, and not behind his back.

This video is a brief summary of St. Paul’s life. Most scholars don’t agree with the concluding remark that Paul made it out of Roman prison and went to Spain. But there are two traditions in this regard: