The Art and Science of Admonishing a Sinner: “It must be done.”
A letter by Bishop Robert Morlino to his flock.
Conscience should always drive us toward perfection. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48),” is the parting exhortation from our Lord in this past Sunday’s Gospel. A correctly formed conscience never says to you, “How little can I do and still call myself a Catholic?”
Conscience doesn’t make us minimalistic . . .
Conscience does not open the door to be a minimalist. It is not a tool for our saying, “How can I give myself permission to do the minimum?”
Conscience opens the door to perfection, to the heroic, to the maximum, because the well-formed conscience serves as that truth-seeking radar, by which we choose to follow the law of the Lord.
As I said, we very much need to spread the word about conscience, and the readings of this past Sunday really help us with one detail of how to do that.
If we’re going to spread the good word about conscience, that means we’re going to have to correct others, especially our brothers and sisters who are Catholic. We know that this is not easy.
What is easy, when we seek to inform the consciences of others, is to seem as if we are judging the person themselves. We have to avoid that judgment of the individual, but we must not hesitate to help them, by offering the truth about their actions.
Correcting others is a ‘hard thing’ . . .
The first reading of this past Sunday reflects upon just how hard that is, as the Lord says to Moses, “Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
It’s a hard thing to correct others, because you might incur sin. That’s the reason why we have to be delicate and sensitive and careful about correcting others. But in truth, that’s not the reason that there’s so little correction given one to another, today.
The correction is not given because we’re afraid that if we correct them, they may not like us. Or, we’re afraid that if we make a claim that this or that behavior is wrong, we’ll be labeled as “politically incorrect.” (Because, of course, there is no objective good or bad… and we all know that here in the dictatorship of relativism.)
So, that’s why a lot of people don’t do any correcting. They’re afraid of not being liked. They’re afraid of not being politically correct, which costs a great deal in our particular environment. But in the first reading, God makes us aware of the real difficulty with correcting others.
Many difficulties in correcting others . . .
It’s not a matter of being afraid of what others think, nor of being afraid to be politically incorrect. But correcting others is really hard even for true believers, because there is a danger of falling into sin ourselves. In order to correct another, we really have to purify ourselves and our intentions first.
In other words, it’s very easy for a good person to correct another, and at the same time experience a lot of self-satisfaction. “I’m correcting you out of love… and at the same time I’m thanking God that I don’t need to be corrected in that area . . . I’m doing great.” That’s a sin!
Beware of self-righteousness . . .
If I take the occasion of correcting another to enjoy how righteous I am before God, that’s a sin. And because of original sin, falling into that attitude is easy. It’s hard to correct another without thinking, “Thank God nobody has to correct me about that.” If I correct somebody that way, I incur my own sin.
And it’s easy to do this even when we like someone, but we have to be especially careful if we don’t naturally like somebody, because it can turn into a situation of putting someone down at the same time.
“I hope I can correct you in front of other people, so that it’s an unmistakable put-down and I can express my negativity about you…” We may be right with regard to our specific correction, but we’ve just committed our own sin in public and wounded the Body of Christ.
And it’s no wonder that people think that whenever anyone corrects another’s behavior, they are judging the other’s heart, because so often they are.
Correction by true believers is hard to find . . .
Correction by a true believer is not easy to find in the Church. That’s why there’s so much confusion, because really true believers, really good people, are hesitant to correct. And they don’t correct because they’re afraid of falling into sin in the process of correcting.
They’re not superficial, thinking, “somebody might not like me, or I won’t be considered politically correct.” They don’t correct because they fear falling into sin themselves, and so sometimes even among true believers it doesn’t get done.
(The only correction in the diocese that I know of that is done regularly — and it goes on all the time — is that people correct their priest and that priests and people correct the bishop. It seems to be open season for correction on priests and bishops. Not much else, in the way of correction, gets done.)
Genuine, faithful correction ‘must be done’ . . .
But this genuine, heart-felt, faithful correction of others about the right to life, about what marriage really is, about freedom of conscience, has to be done far and wide, and especially in the diocese.
And I do my best, but you have to be the army that goes out and helps me with this. And so, we have to keep in mind Sunday’s first reading; we all have to purify ourselves in order to correct another.
And the second reading from this past Sunday gives us a marvelous thought, a marvelous conviction that will help us to correct another with love and sensitivity, rather than for any other motive (1 Cor 3:16-23). The conviction is this: we all belong to God by virtue of our belonging to Christ.
Keep in mind that ‘all belong to Christ’ . . .
Before we approach someone else, we have to think to ourselves that, in truth — whether they believe it or not, whether they know it or not — it is the desire of Almighty God that they belong to Him. Because of the salvation won for us through Christ, everything we need for that salvation belongs to us and to all people; whether they believe or not or whether they know it, it belongs to all people.
And every one of those people belongs to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. When we approach another, we must keep in mind, “I belong to Christ, you belong to Christ, and we both belong to God.”
How to treat those who must be corrected . . .
With this in mind, how are we going to treat that person as we offer correction? We are going to reorient our correction such that our intention is to remind them that they do belong to God and that, “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.”
We have to address the fact that he or she needs correction, yes; we can’t run away from it in fear. But, we also have to treat them as one who, like ourselves, belongs to Christ.
The mysticism of seeing the other person through the eyes of Christ, whether they believe they belong to Him or not, whether they know it or not, is the place from which we can enter into the dynamic of fraternal correction that is so needed in today’s Church.
Our obligation to Spiritual Works of Mercy . . .
Let us all remember our obligation to perform those Spiritual Works of Mercy too: to instruct the ignorant, and to counsel the doubtful.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Let us reflect upon our duty to help inform consciences in love — especially as we come quickly upon Lent.
May God bless every one of you. Praised be Jesus Christ!