Risk It! A Meditation on the Sin of Human Respect and the Holy Fear of the Lord

At one level “human respect” seems a good thing. After all we ought to respect, honor and appreciate one another. What then is meant by the “sin of human respect?” At its core, the sin of human respect is that sin wherein we fear man more than God; where we more concerned with what people think of us and what we do, than what God thinks. This is an unholy fear, a sinful fear which is at the root of a lot of sins we commit as well as of many sins of omission.

Consider some examples:

  1. A man goes up to a group of other men who are gossipping and also speaking inappropriately about certain women in the office. Perhaps he knows that their disparaging comments about the boss are unfair or even untrue. He knows too that speaking of the women in the office using crude sexual imagery and lustful references is wrong. But, because he has walked up to this group and wants to “fit in” he joins the conversation as contributes to what he knows is wrong. He laughs at off color jokes and makes no attempt to steer the conversation in more appropriate directions. He does this because he fears rejection and is more more anxious as to what his co-workers think of him than what God thinks. He fears man more than God. That God is displeased with his actions is less of a fear and grief than that any of these men should be displeased.
  2. A young woman knows that sex before marriage is wrong and that this displeases God. However, she has dated a number of men now and has slept with most of them. She does this partly because she fears rejection. Perhaps if she does not give way to the desires of the young men she dates they will reject her and she will be alone. She thinks that a woman “has to do this” in order to be popular and desirable. She fears man more than God. What human beings think is more important to her than what God thinks. She may well minimize the displeasure of God by saying. “Oh well, God understands” but at the same time she maximizes possible displeasure of weak and fallible human beings by thinking that displeasing them would lead to  catastrophe. She respects, that is, fears man more than God.
  3. A pastor of a parish has a mandate from God and the Church to preach the whole counsel of God. But over the years he has struggled to preach the hard things. After all teaching on things like abortion, fornication, divorce, contraception, homosexuality, euthanasia, Capital Punishment, and so forth, causes some people to be upset. He fears this anger, he fears offending people, he fears being misunderstood. Once, when he spoke about abortion, (because the Bishop said he had to) three parishioners came up to him and told him he should not bring politics into the pulpit. Once, early in his priesthood, he had mentioned divorce since the gospel was about that. A woman came up to him after Mass and said that she was divorced and felt hurt and “excluded” by his mentioning that divorce was problematic. Experiences like these have led the priest to “play it safe.” He always finds joke to start the homily and people love it (him). He chooses to preach only in abstractions and generalities. It is enough to exhort people to be a little more kind, a little more generous,  but specificity he avoids. He does this because he fears man more than God. That God might be displeased that his people are not hearing the truth on the important moral issues of the day, or receiving proper instruction in the disciplines of discipleship is a vague and distant fear to this priest. But one person raising an eyebrow at what he says is enough to ruin his whole week. Thus he goes silent as a prophet and becomes a people-pleaser instead. He respects, he fears man more than God. This is the sin of human respect.
  4. A parent knows somehow that she is to raise her children in the fear of the Lord and train them in godly ways. But Oh, the protests when she tells them to clean their room or to go to bed, or to do their homework. It is just such a hassle to endure their anger and disappointment. Then too she remembers how stern her parents were and how she had vowed she would be nicer to her children. So, little by little, she lets her authority erode and the kids more often get their way. Her husband too is not a strong disciplinarian and he too wants to be thought of as a “cool” dad by his kids and his kids’ friends. Thus, God’s insistence on prayer, discipline and respect for elders, gives way to what the kids want. The oldest, a teenager, doesn’t even want to go to Church any more. But after all, “You can’t force religion on kids” they think. Here too,  the parents fear their children more than God. They have greater respect for their children than for God.

So here are some examples of the “Sin of Human Respect.” This sin runs very deep in our wounded nature and, as we have seen, causes many other sins. Many people are desperate for attention, respect, acceptance and approval from human beings. Many of these same individuals, even the religiously observant, struggle to be nearly as concerned with what God thinks, or if He approves.

God has a simple solution to this: that we should fear Him and thus not fear anyone else. There is an old saying, “If I kneel before God I can stand before any man.” It makes sense that it is a lot easier to fear (respect) one, than many. Hence, the more we learn to fear (respect) God, the less concerned we become with what others think. Now, to be sure this is not an invitation to become a sociopath who cares not one whit what others think. We are to remain polite, groom ourselves, and not intentionally pick fights. But in the end we are instructed by the Lord to be freed of all the fearful trepidation of what others think.

To say this is a simple solution is a bit of an intellectualism to be sure. It is not easy to extract ourselves from this very deep drive of human respect. In fact it takes a life time. But the first step to any healing is to admit we may have a problem and begin to see it for what it is, understand its moves, and let the Lord steadily free us.

Perhaps some scripture quotes that address various aspects of this problem will be a fitting conclusion to this reflection

  1. Through the fear of the LORD a man avoids evil. (Prov 16:6)
  2. Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD. (Prov 23:17)
  3. Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. (Prov 15:16)
  4. The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” (Ex 20:20)
  5. You alone are to be feared O Lord (Psalm 76:7)
  6. God is more awesome than all who surround him. (Psalm 89:7)
  7. I  lie down and sleep;  I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.  I will not fear the tens of thousands drawn up against me on every side. (Psalm 3:4-5)
  8. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. (Jer 32:39)
  9. The Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” (Mark 12:14)
  10. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets (Luke 6:26)
  11. If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)
  12. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna (Matt 10:28).
  13. If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you(Jn 15:18-19)
  14. It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal; I do not even pass judgment on myself; I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord. (1 Cor 4:3)
  15. From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body. (Gal 6:17)
  16. We know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience (2 Cor 5:11).

In this video Fr. Frank Pavonne exhorts us to risk all as prophets of God and not to fear any one or anything more than God.

27 Replies to “Risk It! A Meditation on the Sin of Human Respect and the Holy Fear of the Lord”

  1. You do not realize how much courage you and the Bible have given me to write the things I must …
    Thank you.

  2. As always, another healthy dose of the Truth from Msgr. Pope, even if it hurts a little. I think this ought to inspire any/all of us to make a prayer the most excellent virtue of the Fear of the Lord. Thanks your prolific and rabidly orthodox teaching Father.

  3. Thank you! I was brought up to be unfailingly nice, pleasant and unconfrontational. This was a great persona for the 1950’s and most of the 1960’s in a midwest town when I was in a Catholic environment – all my relatives were traditional Catholics, went to a Catholic grade school, high school etc. It was normal to adhere to Catholic moral teaching. Now I am out of place even in Catholic circles, not to mention the secular world. We are going to be social pariahs to our children, neighbors, and even other parishoners if we choose to live an authentic Catholic life not “in the closet” but openly. However it is very difficult and I truly wish we heard a rallying cry at Sunday Mass and practical advice as to how to specifically react to situations we find ourselves in. WE NEED TO BE
    INSTRUCTED HOW TO DO THIS…We need leadership, exhortations and encouragement every week at Mass because we are battling a culture that is destroying our true faith.

  4. Excellent post Father. I have one question. Is there a difference between what you are describing here and avoiding a topic of conversation because you know the person’s faith is such that they would not entertain such ideas? I sometimes will avoid a conversation if I feel the person just won’t “get it” or “they’re just no there yet.”

    1. Well, a general principle such as this must be crafted for the specific situations we encounter. That we should prophetically witness to our faith is clear. However, one can appreciate that certain moments are strategic moments and other moments are inopportune. Sometimes we need to lay the groundwork for future discussions. Sometimes we need to wait for a better moment. Hence the general rule prevails but the specifics will need to be adjusted.

      1. Thank you for the question and the answer. Very helpful as I encountered just this situation this weekend and have been troubled that I failed to share my faith when the moment arose. This gives me great food for thought.

        Great post Father. I often find myself struggling with this sin and this helps me so much!

  5. I’m grateful for a God-fearing priest’s instruction that kept me from doing something I would now regret.
    I didn’t agree with him at the time, thought I knew better (!), but I respected him and his authority. I regard him as a little gruff, but I want my soul saved. I think that just maybe there isn’t a black mark on my soul because I followed his counsel. Do people want their souls saved today or just to feel good? We need priests who lead. Thank you Monsignor. +


  6. Thank you Father for speaking with the God-given authority of and by The Father.

  7. Sin of Human Respect…how very accurate in its portrayal of human nature. And to fear God more than man but risk being an outcast with your peers? Very, very uncomfortable…

    On the topic of gossip:

    I am in this position quite often, e.g. walking in on gossip. How do to deal with this? Personally I am happy to do this in two ways: (a) I speak to staff / colleagues/friends and I adapt my words, guided by Proverbs 16:24 “Pleasant words are as an honeycombe, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones”. My agenda has another guideline here, which is found in Matthew 10:16 “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves”. (b) If this does not work – specifically in an environment outside work – I disassociate myself from this group since “evil communications corrupt good manners”(1 Cor.15:33). I did find that, if you are open about your convictions and you explain in a non-confrontational manner, people may respect your views and accept them, or they will change topic, should join them while they may have been gossiping. Either way, you “stand before any man”.

  8. Yes, yes, yes to all your different steps, especially the one about the pastors.
    We are told not to be afraid of God. Hmmm, if you do not fear Him how can you avoid sin? True, He is all love and mercy, that’s not an excuse to go ahead with sinning and figuring all will be forgiven anyhow.
    Thanks so much for your preaching.

  9. Once again, I clicked on an article title because it caught my attention and I find it is the same author! A really great article and one that makes you truly think about what you are doing and where you need to work on putting faith into practice.

  10. Thank you Monsignor very straight forward teaching that has to be practiced. of course with the help of the Holy Spirit and full of trust in Jesus, men can do this. Have a blessed day always.

  11. Thank you for bringing forth this all too hidden sin. Our children are pressured from all sides to conform to the immodesty, the drugs, the entertainment, the sins against charity in speech and action. As faithful Catholics who love God, it is important to be firm in our values rooted in Christ rather than going along to get along. Again,thank you, Msgr. Pope! Your homilies are sterling!

  12. There are two kinds of fear of God.
    The first is servile, and is the fear of God’s punishment.
    The second is filial, and is the fear of offending God.
    We should strive to have the filial fear, but often, until we learn to love God more, we need the servile as well.

  13. Thank you, Monsignor for this and all your words of wisdom. There is an excellent novel, “Fatherless”, by Brian Gail which addresses the issues in this article in a very effective manner. His book is riveting. (Actually, I think I recently read that Brian Gail will be presenting “Theology of the Body” to Pope Benedict XVI when he visits England). Gail had been a “Madison Avenue” advertising executive and has a very interesting background.

  14. Warren Murray, you hit the nail on the head. It’s the fear of offending that keeps me straight. But before you get to that stage there is a lot of conversion to be accomplished.

  15. Indulging in the Sin of Human Respect (or, if one were less charitable, the Sin of Spinelessness) serves no one well. Using Msgr P’s examples:

    1a. This man is contributing to a “hostile work environment” by making women targets of crude remarks. Most employers take a dim view of behavior that could subject them to an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and will address it quickly and severely. (Visit eeoc.gov for more information about behavior prohibited by law.)

    1b. Generalized griping about the boss can be rather “career-limiting.” One should keep in mind that once words leave one’s mouth, one has no idea where they’ll land.

    2. There was a story recently about some woman who set a goal to have sex with x number of men, and now is seeking a “real” relationship. The reaction of the men I know on hearing about this woman: ewwwwwwwww!

    3. Ah, the failure to offer fraternal correction! If someone whose role gives him the authority to say hard things wusses out, how can we regular joes have the courage, or the knowledge, to do so? How will we know what we look like if no one holds a mirror in front of us?

    4. This Sin of Spinelessness drives us HR professionals crazy. I will limit myself to saying that parents like this are rearing adults who are unemployable.

  16. The third example, of the discouraged pastor, reminds me that we should thank and support our pastors when they speak the unpopular truth, because heaven knows it took courage for them to do it.

    The fourth example, of the discouraged mother, is excellent. But today parents must contend not only against the waywardness of our children, but against a whole society that insists that the most important thing is to be “nice” to children and to “respect their feelings”.

    In the case of the children, I cannot believe that the sin is in respecting them too much, but too little; I think if I truly understand that my children are the children of God, immortal beings created in His image, then I will have courage to contend with the forces of mediocrity and degradation which threaten them. Even thought the face of what I must contend with is a sneering fourteen year old whom I dearly love.

    Perhaps that is the case with the pastor, too; if he respected the divorced woman more, he could tell her that she should feel excluded, because *she* has excluded herself. She should feel hurt, because she has *committed* a great hurt. If she were the innocent victim of divorce, of course these things would not be true, but she should not feel excluded for a sin which she did not herself commit.

    1. Perhaps part of the problem with the divorced Catholics in church is simply lack of knowledge. Due to shortage of priests, many do not even know their own parish members and so have to have a general blanket in how they treat everyone. They hear of the woman who is divorced and have no idea if the marriage was valid or invalid or if she is the innocent victim. They are constantly transferring priests around in my region that they don’t have time to really get to know all the parish members.

  17. “abortion, fornication, divorce, contraception, homosexuality, euthanasia, Capital Punishment” ???

    How can you equate the above?
    You can find no instance where the Catholic Church has taught that Capital Punishment is a moral evil.

    The Catechism Of The Council Of Trent, Issued by order of Pope St. Pius V
    Execution Of Criminals
    “Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder.”
    Pope Pius XII
    “Even when there is question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already dispossessed himself of his right to life.”
    The Doctors of the Church such as Robert Bellarmine and Alphonsus Liguori held that certain criminals should be punished by death. Venerable authorities such as Francisco de Vitoria, Thomas More, and Francisco Suárez agreed. John Henry Newman, in a letter to a friend, maintained that the magistrate had the right to bear the sword, and that the Church should sanction its use against abominable crimes.

    1. Priests are asked by both the Pope and Bishop’s to stand against Capital Punishment, not as an intrinsic moral evil (ex toto genere suo) but for prudential reasons as part of a coherent pro-life stance. In so doing we will often incur the wrath or disagreement of others (such as I from you). Nevertheless we are asked to stand against it. The point of this post is not to debate this but to illustrate that we must often do what the Church asks and not count the cost.

      I am not ducking your question here it is just that I have covered your points elsewhere more thoroughly. You can read my article here: http://blog.adw.org/2009/11/the-death-penalty-in-our-times/

      WHy did you not quote the current catechism by the way?

  18. In the Prologue to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul writes:

    “The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved June 25th last (1992) and the publication of which I today (October 11, 1992) order by my Apostolic Authority, is a statement of the Church’s faith and of Catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, and the Church’s Magesterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion.”

    The following are paragraphs in the original 1994 published edition of the Catechism of The Catholic Church.

    #2266. Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.

    #2267. If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    (Now after the first new general catechism in 450 years we get a revised edition in just 3 years.
    Paragraphs # 2266 and 2267 were revised somewhat with this paragraph added in 1997.)

    “Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm —without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

    Nowhere in either edition does it state that recourse to the death penalty is contrary to the Catholic Faith. The ” if ” requirement in all cases is the responsibility of “legitimate public authority”, not those who have no competence to render a judgment and do not have to live with the consequences should their judgments be flawed.

    Turning to Christian tradition, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are virtually unanimous in their support for capital punishment. St. Augustine writes in The City of God:

    “The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice.”

    Those who support capital punishment do not show a lack of regard for human life. On the contrary, we show our regard for it.

    1. Well you seem to have missed my point. I am not asserting that Captial Punishment is intrinsically contrary to the Catholic faith. As I stated here and in the article to which I referred you, the opposition to the death penalty is a prudential judgment of the Pope and Bishops wherein they request that we stand with them in principled opposition to the use of this penalty in these times under these circumstances. As I state in the article, Catholics ought to exhibit some degree of assent in such matters of pastoral strategy since our bishops and the Pope are not asking what is unreasonable, they are asking that we stand together with them in a braod based opposition to the culture of death wherein the death of a human being seems increasingly to be the “solution” to more and more problems. I will not argue the doctrine with you because I do not disagree with the basic facts as you have stated them. However, as a priest I will not oppose my bishops or the Pope in a reasonable pastoral strategy they have asked me to adopt. I beleive that I owe religious submission to the even the non-infallible things reasonably asked of me by my religious superiors. I am willing to suffer your wrath on account of this, which is the real point of this article. I might close by encouraging you to consider accepting that pastoral strategy might be something to which you ought to assent as well even if it is not strictly required as a matter of doctrine. Church discipline and unity are important too.

  19. “I am willing to suffer your wrath”.

    What wrath? My words have been almost entirely of quotes from traditional Catholic sources.

    For anyone interest in making a prudential judgment (including our bishops) about capital punishment, here is a link to a 45 page PDF file from the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies. One of the authors originally objected to the use of capital punishment. There are many such studies.


    Here is their conclusion:
    “Any objection to capital punishment, we believe, must rely on something other than abstract injunctions against the taking of life. If the recent evidence of deterrence is shown to be correct, then opponents of capital punishment will face an uphill struggle on moral grounds. If each execution is saving many lives, the harms of capital punishment would have to be very great to justify its abolition, far greater than most critics have heretofore alleged. There is always residual uncertainty in social science and legal policy, and we have attempted to describe, rather than to defend, recent findings here. But if those findings are ultimately shown to be right, capital punishment has a strong claim to being, not merely morally permissible, but morally obligatory, above all from the standpoint of those who wish to protect life.”

    On matters of prudential judgment our bishops should not attempt to foreclose discussion as if correct answers are known only to the them.

    1. etc. etc.

      This is not a post about Capital Punishment. I wil be counted among those who will follow the request of the Pope and bishops. AEI/Brookings are fine institutions but the request of the Pope and Bishops will hold sway in my world. The report raises valid condsiderations but in the end the Pope and Bishops have a policy. It involves prudential judgment. Your dialogue should not be with me, but your own bishop. But I am not going to use this blog any further to question this judgment, that is not the purpose of this blog. I would ask you to discuss this with your own local ordinary in a more private forum. You are free to influence your bishop, but this is not a forum for a general questioning of the Bishops’ prudnetial judgements.

      Yes, your wrath. And you are entitled to it. Anger is a perfectly acceptable human expereince. I realize that this issue provokes strong sentiments.

  20. And further more… Nah, I’m done.

    Congratulations on you blog. I am a regular reader.

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