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:

Pondering Punishment In the Light of God’s Love

The first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Amos has God speaking of some rather strong punishments coming Israel’s way due to her lack of repentance. God says the strong shall be brought low and the swift shall not escape!  There is also a vivid line in the psalm that read: Consider this, you who forget God, lest I rend you and there be no one to rescue you. He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me; and to him that goes the right way I will show the salvation of God (Ps 50:22-23)

We have become rather “soft” in modern times (at least in the Western World). We have been taught in the “God is Love” school which is not wrong but has often understood that love in sentimental and simplistic ways. Modern notions of love are usually soft, permissive and non-directive. Love is often thought to be exclusively “supportive” and “affirming.” The understanding that love could or should include setting limits, correction, admonishments or punishments is usually downplayed if not explicitly rejected as pertaining to love. For this reason parenting in our culture has been severely undermined.

God too has largely been relegated to being essentially an affirmer. He is the one who “understands.” One man recently told me that God didn’t care if he went to Church or not. When I quoted the 3rd Commandment and another scriptural passage he just brushed it aside and said, “God understands my heart.” A couple divorcing once told me that God was OK with them divorcing since God “wouldn’t want them to be unhappy.” When I read scriptures that indicated that God wasn’t too impressed with divorce they just brushed it aside and indicated that God wouldn’t want them to go on suffering since they were both in love with other people. A homosexual “couple” recently insisted that since God is about love he has no problem with any two people loving each other. Scriptural quotes as usual had no impact on these men who simply said, “God is not a homophobe.”

So in the end it would seem that God’s main job is to affirm us in whatever we want to do. This reinvented “God” just want us to be emotionally happy and have plenty of self esteem.

Of course in this climate, the notion of God not merely disapproving of something we do but actually punishing us for it seems an outrageous and untenable position. And yet over and over again Scripture is filled with God sending forth punishments on those who persist in sin. It is true many passages speak of his patience but there comes a time when, after warning through the prophets and others,  that God does punish. Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments are filled with warnings of punishment and also its execution.

Now it remains true that God is Love. But he is true and real Love. His love is strong and rooted in what is actually best for us, both as individuals and as a community. Hence when God punishes it is a manifestation of his love.

We also have to recapture a proper understanding of punishment and its purpose. Too many people today think that punishment is the same as vengeance. Hence the one who punishes is merely exactly revenge or getting back at some one for what they have done. Perhaps too many think of punishment as merely a way for the more powerful to vent their anger on the less powerful. It is true that sometimes a parent may punish with mixed motives. Perhaps they are at times venting their anger  as they punish a child. But they are imperfect parents. God however, is a perfect Father and when he punishes it is not admixed with these sinful qualities. But distorted notions of punishment as synonymous with revenge or a mere venting of anger are common today. Thus a proper notion of punishment must be recovered.

What then is the proper understanding and purpose of punishment? In effect the purpose of punishment is allow the one punished to experience the negative effects of bad behavior in a small way so that they do not experience the bad effects in a far worse way. Consider a child who has been commanded by his parents not to cross the busy street without an older person to escort him. This warning is issued in love. The parents are not trying to take away his fun or merely limit his freedom to no purpose. They are trying to protect him from grave harm. But what if the child does cross the street unescorted and the parents discover it? Likely they will or should punish him. Perhaps his father will have him stay in his room for three hours alone as a punishment. Now notice what is happening here. A smaller injury is inflicted to avoid a much worse injury. After all which is worse, a three hour “time out” in a boring room, or being struck by a car and possibly paralyzed or killed? It is clear that the purpose of punishment is to allow a small amount of pain to avoid a much worse situation.

And thus when God punishes he is surely acting in the same manner. He will allow pain or inflict it so that we will avoid far worse pain eternally in Hell, or also pain here as our bad behavior spirals downward into far worse and dangerous matters. Punishment when properly applied (and it always is by God) is salutary. It helps to bring an end to bad and ultimately hurtful behavior and usually issues forth in good and constructive behavior.

Hence punishment is integral to love. But love here must be understood as the strong and vigorous love that speaks the truth and insists upon it for us as the only basis for real and lasting fulfillment.

The Letter to the Hebrews has a remarkable passage that spells out the true contours of punishment and discipline rooted in God the Father’s true and vigorous love for us:

My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.”  Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards.  Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not (then) submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live? They disciplined us for a short time as seemed right to them, but he does so for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness. At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it. So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed. (Heb 12:5-13)

As a final observation note that this passage says that those who are without discipline are called  “bastards.” It is interesting that this word,  which originally refers simply to child that does not have a father in his life, has come to mean some one who is obnoxious self centered, or incorrigible. When a child grows up without the discipline of a father they often become a  “bastard”  in both the ancient and modern sense of the word. In our use of this rather impolite word we are connecting what happens to a person who does not know discipline.

It is a true fact that many children today have not known proper discipline and this leads to any number of ills: bad and self destructive behavior, arrogance, disrespectful attitudes, incorrigibility, hostility, selfishness, greed, insensitivity, lack of self-control and many other sociopathic tendencies.

We need to rediscover that punishment is part of love. It is not love to leave a child undisciplined. We are not helping them in any way when we fail to discipline. Surely discipline must be rooted in love and when it is it leads to many good effects. God too shows us his love in disciplining us and punishing. I have quoted these words of St. Thomas before and it is good to finish with them: [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. (II, IIae, 33.1).

In this video Fr.”Bing Crosby” warns the young men of the school of what comes from bad behavior.

Correcting the Sinner is not”Being Judgmental.”It is an Essential Work of Charity.

In today’s Gospel there is a Scripture passage that is “too well known.” I say this because the world has picked it up almost as a club to swing at Christians. The text is used almost as if it were the whole Bible and it is used to shut down any discussion of what is right or wrong,  what is virtuous or what is sinful. Even many Christians mis-interpret the passage as a mandate to be silent in the face of sin and evil. It is a passage “too well known”  because it is remembered but 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)

Any time the Church or an individual Christian points to a certain behavior as wrong or sinful, inevitably wagging fingers are raised and an indignant tone ensues which says something to the effect, “Ah, ah, ah…..you’re being judgmental! The Bible says, judge not. Who are you to judge your neighbor!?” etc. This is clearly an attempt to shut down discussion quickly and to shame the Christian, or the Church into silence. To a large degree this tactic has worked and modern culture has succeeded in shaming many Christians from this essential work of correcting the sinner. Too many are terrified and simply shamed when they are said to be “judging” someone because they call attention to sin or wrongdoing. In a culture where tolerance is one of the only virtues left, to “judge” is a capital offense. “How dare we do such a thing!”  The world protests, “Who are you to judge someone else?!”

But pay careful attention to what this Gospel text is actually saying. The judgment in question is not as to the question of right and wrong. Rather, the judgment in question regards punishment or condemnation. The next sentence makes this clear when it speaks of the measure we use. The measure in question is the level of condemnation, harshness or punishment that is used. A parallel passage in Luke 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). Hence the word “judge” here is understood to mean an unnecessarily harsh and punitive condemnation. To paraphrase the opening verses here would be to say, “Be careful not to be condemning for If you lower the boom on others, you will have the boom lowered on you. If you throw the book at others, it will also be thrown at you.”

Further, the parable that follows in the passage above about the plank in one’s eye does NOT say not to correct sinners. It says in effect, get right with God yourself and understand your own sin so that you will see clearly enough to properly correct your brother. Hence, 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.

In these times one of the most forgotten virtues and obligations we have is the duty to correct the sinner. It is listed among the Spiritual Works of Mercy. St. Thomas Aquinas lists it in the Summa 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. (II, IIae, 33.1)

Now to be sure, there are some judgments that are forbidden us. For example we cannot assess that we are better or worse than someone else before God. Neither can we 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). Further we are instructed that 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. The same scriptures also caution us against being unnecessarily harsh or punitive. As we already read from Luke, 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).  So in this text “to judge” means to condemn or to be unmerciful, to be unreasonably harsh.

Scripture commends and commands Fraternal Correction: I said above that the Gospel from today’s Mass is, in a sense “too well known.” That is, it has been embraced to the exclusion of everything else, as if it is ALL the Bible has to say about correcting the sinner. But the fact is that 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.

1. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt 18:15-18) Jesus instructs us to speak to a sinning brother or sister and summon them to repentance. If private rebuke does not work and, assuming the matter is serious, others who are trustworthy should be summoned to the task. Finally the Church should be informed. If they will not listen even to the Church then they should be excommunicated (treated as a tax collector or Gentile). Hence in serious matters excommunication should be considered as a kind of medicine that will inform the sinner of how serious the matter is. Sadly this “medicine” is seldom used today even though Jesus clearly prescribes it (at least in more 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; 10not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you. (1 Cor 5:1-13)  So the Holy Spirit speaking through Paul commands that we “judge”  the evil doer. Now again in this case the matter is very serious (incest). Notice how the text says he should be excommunicated (handed over to Satan). Here too the purpose is medicinal. It is to be hoped that Satan will beat him up enough that he will come to his senses and repent before the day of judgment. It is also medicinal in the sense that the community is protected from bad example, scandal and the presence of evil. The text also requires us to be able to size people up. There ARE immoral and unrepentant people with whom it is harmful for us to associate. We are instructed to discern this and not keep friendly company with people who can mislead us or tempt us to sin. This requires a judgment on our part. Some judgements ARE 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 fulfil the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2) Notice we are called to note when a person has been overtaken in sin and to correct him. Note too that the text cautions us to do so in a spirit of gentleness. Otherwise we may sin in the very process of correcting the sinner. Perhaps we are prideful or unnecessarily harsh in our words of correction. This is no way to correct. Gentle and humble but clear, seems to be the instruction here. It also seems that patience is called for since we must bear the burden’s of one another’s sin. We bear this in two ways. First we accept the fact that others have imperfections and faults that trouble us. Secondly we bear the obligation of helping others know their sin and of helping them to repent.

4. My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19) The text is ambiguous as to whose soul is actually saved but that is good since it seems both the corrected and the corrector are beneficiaries of fraternal correction well executed.

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) The text instructs us that to refuse to correct a sinning neighbor is a form of hatred. Instead we are instructed to love our neighbors by not wanting sin to overtake them.

6. If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess 3:14)  Notice again the medicine of rebuke even to the point of refusing fellowship in more serious matters is commanded. But note too that even a sinner does not lose his dignity, he is still to be regarded as a brother, not an enemy. A similar text from 2 Thess 3:6 says  We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us.

7. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom (Col 3:16)  To admonish means to warn. Hence, if the word of Christ is rich within us we will warn when that becomes necessary. A similar text from 2 Tim 3:16 says:  All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. Reproof and correction is 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). Here fraternal correction is described as admonishing, encouraging and helping. We are also exhorted to patience is these works.

Well there are more but by now you get the point. Fraternal correction, correcting the sinner it prescribed and commanded by scripture. We must resist the shame that the world tries to inflict on us by saying, simplistically, that we are “judging” people. Not all judgment is forbidden, some judgment is commanded. Correction of the sinner is both charitable and virtuous. True enough it is possible to correct poorly or even sinfully.

We have failed to correct – But if we are to have any shame about fraternal correction it should be that we have so severely failed to correct. 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. Proverbs 10:10, 17 says 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.

The following video is a bit home-spun but it basically captures the problem that Christians face and explains pretty well some of the distinctions I am making here: .

Fraternal Correction: the Forgotten Virtue

In these times one of the most forgotten virtues and obligations we have is the duty to correct the sinner. It is listed among the Spiritual Works of Mercy. St. Thomas Aquinas lists it in the Summa 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. (II, IIae, 33.1)

The World and the Devil have largely succeeded in shaming Christians from this essential work. We are said to be “judging” someone when we call attention to their sin or wrongdoing. In a culture where tolerance is one of the only virtues left, to “judge” is a capital offense. “How dare we do such a thing!”  The world protests, “Who are you to judge someone else!”

Now to be sure, there are some judgements that are forbidden us. For example we cannot assess that we are better or worse than someone else before God. Neither can we always understand and 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). Further we are instructed that 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. The same scriptures also caution us against being uncessesarily harsh or punitive. And so we read, 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).  So in this text “to judge” means to condemn or to be unmerciful, to be unreasonably harsh.

Another text that is often used by the world to forbid making “judgments” is Matt 7:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3“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? 4How 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? 5You 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)

But pay careful attention to what this text is actually saying. First as we have already seen the Luke version the word “judge” here is understood to mean an unnecessarily harsh and punitive condemnation. The second verse makes this clear. To paraphrase verse two would be to say, If you lower the boom on others, you will have the boom lowered on you. If you throw the book at others, it will also be thrown at you.” Further, the parable that follows does NOT say not to correct sinners. If says, get right with God yourself and then you will see clearly enough to properly correct your brother.

The fact is that 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.

  1. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt 18:15-18) Jesus instructs us to speak to a sinning brother or sister and summon them to repentance. If private rebuke does not work and, assuming the matter is serious, others who are trustworthy should be summoned to the task. Finally the Church should be informed. If they will not listen even to the Church then they should be excommunicated (treated as a tax collector or Gentile). Hence in serious matters excommunication should be considered as a kind of medicine that will inform the sinner of how serious the matter is. Sadly this “medicine” is seldom used today even though Jesus clearly prescribes it (at least in more 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; 10not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you. So the Holy Spirit speaking through Paul commands that we “judge”  the evil doer. Now again in this case the matter is very serious (incest). Notice how the text says he should be excommunicated (handed over to Satan). Here too the purpose is medicinal. It is to be hoped that Satan will beat him up enough that he will come to his senses and repent before the day of judgment. It is also medicinal in the sense that the community is protected from bad example, scandal and the presence of evil. The text also requires us to be able to size people up. There ARE immoral and unrepentant people with whom it is harmful for us to associate. We are instructed to discern this and not keep friendly company with people who can mislead us or tempt us to sin. This requires a judgment on our part. Some judgements ARE 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 fulfil the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2) Notice we are called to note when a person has been overtaken in sin and to correct him. Note too that the text cautions us to do so in a spirit of gentleness. Otherwise we may sin in the very process of correcting the sinner. Perhaps we are prideful or unnecessarily harsh in our words of correction. This is no way to correct. Gentle and humble but clear, seems to be the instruction here. It also seems that patience is called for since we must bear the burden’s of one another’s sin. We bear this in two ways. First we accept the fact that others have imperfections and faults that trouble us. Secondly we bear the obligation of helping others know their sin and of helping them to repent.
  4. My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19) The text is ambiguous as to whose soul is actually saved but that is good since it seems both the corrected and the corrector are beneficiaries of fraternal correction well executed.
  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) The text instructs us that to refuse to correct a sinning neighbor is a form of hatred. Instead we are instructed to love our neighbors by not wanting sin to overtake them.
  6. If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother  2 Thess 3:14  Notice again the medicine of rebuke even to the point of refusing fellowship in more serious matters is commanded. But note too that even a sinner does not lose his dignity, he is still to be regarded as a brother, not an enemy. A similar text from 2 Thess 3:6 says  We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us.
  7.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom Col 3:16 To admonish means to warn. Hence, if the word of Christ is rich within us we will warn when that becomes necessary. A similar text from 2 Tim 3:16 says:  All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. Reproof and correction is 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. Here fraternal correction is described as admonishing, encouraging and helping. We are also exhorted to patience is these works.

Well there are more but by now you get the point. Fraternal correction, correcting the sinner it prescribed and commanded by scripture. We must resist the shame that the world tries to inflict on us by saying, simplistically, that we are “judging” people. Not all judgment is forbidden, some judgment is commanded. Correction of the sinner is both charitable and virtuous. True enough it is possible to correct poorly or even sinfully.

But if we are to have any shame about fraternal correction it should be that we have so severely failed to correct. 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. Proverbs 10:10, 17 says 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.

The following video explores the reasonability and necessity of correction and the problems that emerge when correction is forgone.

Update on the Church in Austria

Twice before on this blog (HERE and HERE) there have been references to troubles in Austria, specifically the Diocese of Linz. Here is something of an update on the situation and Roman attempts to address the problem in the latest issue of Gloria TV News

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone has warned Austrian bishops against loss of faith. The Cardinal preached in St. Peter’s Basilica on June 15, the first of two consecutive days of meetings between Pope Benedict XVI and some bishops of Austria on the situation in the Diocese of Linz. Bertone reminded that faith is a gift that is not acquired once for all. Its truth can be lost, adulterating it, polluting it, confusing it.” The Cardinal also admonished the bishops with reference to St. Paul to be focused on the judgment of God as pastoral work is conducted.

Here is the video: